Now I hate having to go back over long past chapters, but as my own abilities improve I can't very well leave subpar work in the finished product. So, while this chapter is unlikely to get much of a length increase, its quality will at least be improved over the original.

Progress: the key to success for society in all things, from peaceful economy to chaotic war. Since their earliest days on Earth, humans had always been advancing, always creating new ways to both build safe societies and destroy others. Yet if there was one situation that pushed humanity to progress at an alarming rate, it was competition. Whether it was war or something of a less destructive nature, competing with other humans always lead to innovation.

Even so, fighting was what spurred technology forward at frightening speeds. Each section of human history had a particular innovation that changed the face of warfare. From sticks and stones to steel blades, from those to gunpowder, and from that to modern firepower. Yet now, humanity had once again surpassed its previous destructive technology in favor of something even deadlier: Infinite Stratos.

High-power, high-speed, shielded flight machines with unparalleled abilities in battle. Armed with weapons more fit for science-fiction than reality, one Infinite Stratos unit was worth an entire battalions of tanks, worth more than entire fighter squadrons: in some cases, one unit was worth more than a nuclear arsenal.

Because of this overwhelming potential for destruction, countries who possessed I.S. of their own wielded great power and influence over anyone weaker than them: anyone who had fewer I.S., or none at all.

And yet, of the supposedly 467 I.S. that had been created, not a one of them had seen true combat. Thanks to the Alaska Treaty, which had been put into effect shortly after the creation of Infinite Stratos, these potential war machines were forbidden from engaging in warfare. Of course, what was a treaty besides a list of potentially false assurances? No, what really kept I.S. off of the battlefield was the same thing that had once kept hostile countries from nuking each other into oblivion: mutually assured destruction.

No one wanted to start a war between powerful machines that could decimate entire armies, and for that reason no one dared break the treaty they had all promised to abide by.

But even so, as humans were always prone to do, everyone was prepared for the worst. Behind closed doors everyone with the funds to do so worked on weapons capable of destroying I.S. units. Specialized anti-aircraft batteries, intercept aircraft, and even I.S. weapons in themselves were constantly being produced as insurance against potential I.S. attack. Unfortunately, it was this exact situation that had put the United States of America in dire straits.

Being the affluent first-world country that it was, the United States had possessed three very powerful I.S. of its own, alongside their many training model types. Two Fang Quake units, and their newest creation (with some help from Israel), the Silver Gospel. The latter had been equipped with a very experimental Artificial Intelligence that was supposed to assist the Gospel's pilot, Natasha Fairs, in all operations. However, the A.I. had mysteriously malfunctioned during routine maintenance and deployed of its own accord, at which point it engaged in a combat protocol that dictated it to attack Non-U.S. Infinite Stratos units with lethal force. There were suspicions that the A.I. had been remotely hacked by someone, but so far there was no evidence to support such theories. The only similar occurrence had been ten years ago during the White Knight incident, when the United States had lost control of all of their ICBM's at the hands of a master hacker. Needless to say, an even heavier reliance on Infinite Stratos had been created after that situation. After all, one I.S. alone had intercepted over 2,000 missiles, practically making nuclear weapons obsolete, at least in regards to nuking any country that had I.S. of its own.

Regardless, the aggressive protocol that had been enacted existed because the Silver Gospel had been created solely to destroy foreign I.S. if hostilities ever broke out. Unfortunately this had backfired horribly when the Gospel's A.I. descended on I.S. units from Japan's prestigious Academy in an attempt to destroy the largest number of specialized I.S. it could. The situation had been the makings of an international catastrophe: if the Gospel had killed even one of the pilots from the Academy, the world could have very well had a war on its hands.

But thankfully (though it was hard to imagine it as such), the Silver Gospel had been destroyed in battle and lost at sea, and no one had been killed. Unfortunately, this did not leave America without backlash. Having been responsible for the disaster that could have potentially ignited World War Three, the United Nations had been quick to demand that all American owned I.S. cores be forfeited to them for redistribution to more 'responsible' countries.

With no alternative available, the President had agreed to these demands, relinquishing control of all American cores, save one. One of their Fang Quakes was in a black ops unit that no one knew about outside of top brass, so it had been withheld from the UN in secret. Of course, since I.S. cores were very limited they were kept very good track of, and everyone expected nineteen I.S. to be handed over (most of them were default training units). But with several under the table deals with Israel, who had also played a hand in the catastrophe, America's misdeed had been kept secret. They had simply taken one of Israel's training I.S. cores and passed it off as their own to give the UN the expected nineteen units. Keeping their sudden loss of an I.S. core off of records was up to Israel.

Even so, the U.S. was now seriously outmatched in firepower against just about everyone. They now had one hidden I.S. to stand against the multiple specialized units of other world powers. Should any one of those countries feel like conquering or subjugating the United States, they would not have much trouble doing so.

And of course, with an accident like the Gospel's looming over them, the chances of the U.S. acquiring any I.S. to call their own was practically impossible for at least a decade.

Obviously such a dangerous situation could not be allowed to stand, so the great minds of the United States did what humans always do when faced with potential conflict: they built a newer, deadlier weapon to defend themselves with.

"We'll brief you on the objective after you finish all of the tests with the suit, Epsilon. Make sure to run the primary diagnostics check first: wouldn't want to ruin Exeter before it's first field day."

Epsilon, chosen operator for America's newest creation, nodded inside his steel gray body-sized battle suit. He was wearing Exeter, the United States' new innovation in futuristic aerial combat. It was, they hoped, the key to finally outmatching Infinite Stratos, and more importantly, defending themselves against it.

Beginning the routine systems check program, Epsilon moved his surprisingly light frame to a space between two ten foot tall spires that looked vaguely reminiscent of Tesla coils. Supervised from an observation deck above the large room turned maintenance course, Epsilon waited for the inevitable EMP blast that would lower his energy shields to zero. The shock used to make him flinch, but by now he had experienced it so many times that the pilot did not react at all.

The Exeter project had been initiated right after the loss of America's I.S. Actually, the Exeter project had been planned and designed years ago, and wasn't meant to be started until a few years from now, but the current crisis had sped up it's initiation date. As things were now, America would be terribly outgunned and nearly defenseless if it went to war with another country and ran into enemy I.S., so the Exeter project had been put into motion to return the balance of power, without the knowledge or consent of the UN.

The Exeter project was a new type of aerial combat technology. Since America was unable to legally possess I.S. of their own anymore, Exeter was a new creation entirely. Instead of a mech being controlled by a pilot, it was an armor suit that covered the pilot like knight's armor, and they controlled it as if it was his or her own body. It was sort of like Iron Man. Except Iron Man was fiction, and Exeter was reality. The silver battle suit covered every inch of the wearer's body, and it was armed with incredibly powerful weapons that were easily on par with many of the current I.S. they had been tested against so far. Exeter had already been tested against not only factory model I.S., but also specialized units from several other countries. Exeter had outmatched them all, if only through versatility. Even though the enemy mechs had been controlled by expert pilots, they were unable to match Epsilon's piloting skills or the full range of the Exeter suit's abilities. Of course, many of these tests had taken place both covertly and illegally, but that was hardly anything to be concerned about now.

In almost all ways, the Exeter suit was superior to almost all known I.S. On average, at least. Exeter was superior to any standard I.S., but it couldn't match the specs of specialized I.S. units. England's Blue Tears model was a fine example: Blue Tears' accuracy and long range capabilities had been superior to Exeter's by a 3 to 1 margin. However, it's weakness in close range and agility had been a huge disadvantage in combat compared to Exeter, which was superior in both aspects. With those advantages, Epsilon had easily outmaneuvered and defeated the opposing I.S., reducing one of England's battle frames to scrap. Of course that wasn't much of a loss: as long as the core survived, it could be implanted into another Blue Tears armament and it would be like the engagement had never happened. Of course, If Epsilon was confronted by multiple specialized I.S., even he wouldn't be able to handle that.

Of course, since the whole point of Exeter was to combat I.S., that couldn't be allowed to stand. In order to properly counter specialized units, DARPA was currently working on something they had dubbed the 'Instant Armor Modification Module.' Epsilon didn't know the details, much less the basic science behind the thing, but he had been told the general idea behind the system. Apparently, the I.A.M.M. would make it possible for Exeter to instantly switch out armor components so that it could specialize the suit in another area, such as speed, heavy weaponry, or close quarters combat. Epsilon wasn't entirely sure how it would work, but as long as it did, he didn't really care. Unfortunately, it wasn't scheduled to be finished for another six months, and Epsilon could only look forward to using it later.

Distracted by his own musings, Epsilon proceeded through the routine maintenance tests without much thought on his part. He had been through these procedures dozens of times, so it hardly required his attention to go through them. Besides, if anything was wrong with the suit, the technicians would let him know.

When he finally went through the final systems check procedure, Epsilon glanced at a large screen above him on the wall that displayed the gathered data. As always, everything was nominal, both for the suit itself and the physical pilot. Three years of intensive training with Exeter had molded Epsilon into the optimal physical form for operating the machine. He couldn't help but wonder how such conditioning would have affected him were he the originally intended age for operation of the suit. Epsilon had been put into control of Exeter nearly seven years ahead of schedule: he was supposed to be twenty-two before he started piloting the mechanical marvel, but with the current crisis taken into account, he was now operating the machine at fifteen. Nevertheless, his immediate superiors believed he was ready for it, and if his test results thus far were any indicator, he was.

With all of the tests completed, the voice of Epsilon's division Commander crackled over the hangar turned testing room's intercom. "Alright, Epsilon. Get back up to the observation deck. We've got a lot to discuss."

Only a few minutes after finishing the tests below, Epsilon walked into the observation room that overlooked the training area he had just been in. Sitting at the one table in the middle of the room was Epsilon's immediate superior, a wrinkled, 40-year old gray haired Texan he had met three years ago, when his training had first started. The man's dispassionate black eyes had always unnerved him, but such notions were made even worse thanks to the fact that Epsilon had never been told the man's name. Personally, Exeter's pilot trusted him about as far as he could throw him (without the suit of course), but the man was his military superior regardless.

Epsilon was still wearing the Exeter suit as he saluted the older man. He had to be careful in doing so though; the suit may have been able to survive a high-impact blow, but the pilot within could not. Regardless of shields and armor, blunt force trauma posed a danger to both him and I.S. pilots alike. "Reporting in, Commander."

The Commander waved his hand dismissively. "At ease, Epsilon. There ain't no reason to bother with that in here."

Epsilon dropped his salute and nodded, not all that enthusiastic to be familiar with the man before him. "Of course, sir."

With that out of the way, the Commander sat back in his chair and pulled out a Cuban cigar: he almost always had one with him. Since it was against regulations to light it within the base, the grizzled old goat simply chewed on the tip. "Well, onto business. Now that we're absolutely sure everything is running smoothly and that you can handle Exeter's operation, I have a very important task for you, priority Alpha-1. Think you're up for it?"

Epsilon replied as neutrally as possible, ensuring that he did not come off as disrespectful. "With all due respect sir, I can't know if I'm ready for an undisclosed mission."

The Commander cracked a small smile, but it was anything but happy. It freaked the hell out of Epsilon, who would have preferred if the man just kept his usual poker face. "Fair enough. But I think you can handle it. After all, this is exactly what you've been training for, and exactly why we made Exeter in the first place."

Epsilon gave no response. What he had been trained for was unregulated, unrestricted combat with hostile I.S. in an open war zone. He really doubted that this mission would entail such a thing. Still, priority A1 was top class, so it would definitely be dangerous. And as his first real assignment as well? The higher-ups must have been getting a little impatient about the global situation.

Seeing that Epsilon had nothing to say, the Commander got right to the point."I assume you are aware of the Infinite Stratos Academy the Silver Gospel attacked?"

Epsilon nodded, thankful that his incredulous expression was hidden behind Exeter's visor. If anyone hadn't known about the Academy before now (and he couldn't possibly imagine how that could be), they certainly had after news of the Gospel incident had been broadcast worldwide. "Of course, sir."

The Commander grunted in response. He wasn't much of a conversationalist. "Then pack your bags son, 'cause you're heading there today."

Needless to say, this vague explanation left Epsilon very confused. Any reason for going to that Academy would likely involve gathering data on foreign I.S. technology, but it was unlikely that any of it would be something the U.S.A. didn't already know. Why was something so easy and even pointless ranked as a priority A1 assignment? There would be minimal danger...

"I'm sorry sir, but I don't see why a reconnaissance or retrieval mission is classified as this rank, or why I'm being sent to execute it. Besides, per the Alaska Treaty, all I.S. data is required to be shared internationally..."

The Commander chuckled coldly, seemingly amused by the assumption being made. "And just how many nations do you think abide by that particular rule?"

Epsilon had nothing to say to that, as it was only common sense that no one shared all of their knowledge with everyone else. Not that everyone was ignorant of this: it's just that no one was going to criticize say, Germany, for not revealing all of their new Schwarzer Regen's specs, when China wasn't giving up all of their data on Shen Long either. Everyone broke that particular part of the Alaska Treaty: they just chose to ignore the fact that they were.

Either way, when Epsilon didn't give a reply, his Commander continued his explanation of the mission. "Hell son, this ain't a recon mission. You'll be acquiring data all right, but in the end, your final objective will be to wipe the Academy off the map."

Such a nonchalant answer left Epsilon shocked. This had definitely been the last thing he had been expecting. A slash and burn objective was not what he had in mind. "What do you mean by that, Commander? Surely such a course of action isn't wise..."

The Commander cut him off before he could continue. "I mean what I say, son. Raze, annihilate, decimate, whatever floats your boat. My boss wants the Academy gone, building, faculty, and all. That includes all of the I.S. there, as well as any individuals we deem dangerous. And since I'm your boss, that's what I want you to do."

Epsilon just stared at the Commander, his dumb expression hidden behind his helmet. "And how and why exactly am I supposed to do this? How on earth am I going to take on dozens of I.S. at once?"

The Commander cocked an eyebrow and gave him an incredulous look, as though Epsilon was asking a question with an obvious answer. "Well, we can't just go and drop a nuke on the damn thing now can we? War isn't that simple. As for why, it's because we ordered you to, and you have an obligation to obey, so no more questions. There will be time for that later. In fact, I have to leave for another meeting right now, and you'll be filled in on the mission parameters later. Report to the engineering lab and be quick about it. I've wasted enough time talkin' already."

On his way to the engineering lab, which doubled as a hangar, Epsilon attempted to wrap his head around the objective he had been given. Destroy a major non-military installation in a foreign country? Surely that was an act of war. Had the President authorized this mission himself? That didn't seem even remotely logical...

He was still thinking to himself when he entered the engineering lab: really just a big hangar bay with a lot of mechanical equipment lying around. There were some aircraft within the large chamber as well, but none of them looked combat ready. Many of them were still being constructed or modified.

Ignoring the mysterious jets, Epsilon headed for his friend, Engineer Lead Marcus Dougley, who had been waiting for him as he entered. The young man had befriended him shortly after Epsilon had arrived in this facility. The dirty blond, green eyed New Yorker was constantly working on Exeter, so he and Epsilon had plenty of time to talk throughout the past three years.

"Marcus. A little bit of an explanation would be nice, if you have one."

The glasses wearing nerd grinned at him apologetically. "Sorry, little dude. I don't have any idea what you're leaving to do, and you're not allowed to tell me. I just have to give you this, and then you'll be on your way. ASAP too; you were supposed to leave ten minutes ago. But don't worry. Even if we don't have time to talk, I've gotten you a new buddy to fill in for me!"

Marcus held out his hand to show Epsilon a round blue and gray ringed disk about the size of his palm, with ridges in it every few centimeters. "What is that thing supposed to be?"

Marcus smiled triumphantly. "This is my newest creation! A fully-functional Artificial Intelligence, Personally designed by me for Exeter!"

Exeter's pilot looked at the excited man with doubt, his incredulity hidden behind his helm. "Isn't this exactly the kind of thing that caused the Gospel incident in the first place?"

The enthusiastic engineer dismissed the question with ease. "This one is different from the Gospel's A.I. This one is a 'smart' A.I. Unlike the Gospel's it can think for itself, so it won't go on a rampage without a cause."

Epsilon frowned, his fears still not assuaged. "Isn't that almost always something that evolves into a Terminator and kills everyone?"

The man motioned for Epsilon to turn around so he could install the disk in the armor. He talked while he worked. "Don't let all that movie garbage confuse you man. It can think for itself, but only within certain parameters. It won't be able to evolve into a super anti-human machine or anything. Besides, it'll be really useful! It does everything, and that's the true beauty of it! It helps with flight paths, weapon evasion, shield calibration, maximum output management, the list goes on forever! This useful little guy will make your job way easier! Thanks to yours truly, of course."

Epsilon was a little against having an AI to interfere with his suit, but if it was truly so useful, he supposed it was a worthy add-on. "Does this A.I. have a name?"

Marcus closed up whatever panel he was messing with on Exeter's back. "Yep. I call it...'Cerberus!'"

"You named an A.I. after a three-headed demon dog? I'm afraid to ask why."

The tech wizard walked Epsilon over to the hangar door that connected to the engineering lab where he would be departing for Japan. "Well you see, Cerberus has a... um... minor flaw."

Particularly unnerved by this piece of info, Epsilon glanced at the man with a narrowed gaze. " A 'minor' flaw?"

Marcus nodded nonchalantly. "Yep. You see... Cerberus is, how do I put this...? Oh, I know! Cerberus is Schizophrenic."

Epsilon stopped walking and stared at the man incredulously. "You installed a bipolar intelligence with access to my suit inside the armor?"

Marcus waved him off and pushed him to keep walking. "It's not like that. The A.I. itself just has multiple personalities, that's all. It's nothing dangerous. It has three, to be exact, which is why I named it Cerberus. Though I suppose I could've called it Trident or something..."

Epsilon sighed again and stopped in front of the open hangar bay doors, providing him with a clear view of the sky above Nevada's barren landscape. "As long as it doesn't possess me or something, I guess it's fine..."

The older member of the duo patted the armored pilot on the back. "It'll be fine! It's nothing like that! You'll see. It'll activate about fifteen minutes from now, and then you'll see just how great it really is!"

Even though he laughed at this, Marcus quickly grew serious. He knew that his buddy was probably about to head into something very dangerous. "Hey, no matter what happens or what you're doing out there, you know I've got your back, right?"

"Thank you, Marcus. I appreciate it."

With a nod, the man started to walk back towards the far end of the hangar so Epsilon could launch without fear of harming him. "Good luck man... I get the feeling you're going to need it."

Epsilon readied Exeter for takeoff and sighed one last time. He had no idea just how much luck he was going to need; with this mission on his hands, what he really may have needed was a priest.

So I think this will be an interesting path for an Infinite Stratos fic. Sorry about the lack of characters form the series itself, but they'll show up next chapter, so don't worry.