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 the most 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 weaponry. 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, almost none of them had seen the face of 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 its 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. Initially, the suit had been designed as an enhanced exoskeleton for infantry, but it had been quickly repurposed when the current situation came into being. As things stood 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 vaguely reminiscent of any of the suits worn by heroes in fiction. 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 combined with 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., he would likely have been demolished.

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 some time yet, 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'd always found it strange to be recruited by a military arm of the government at age twelve, but the pay had always been more than enough to compensate for any misgivings. He'd needed that money for many reasons, the most important among them being the ability to care for those close to him. That said, he had never questioned why the military had chosen a twelve year old boy all those years ago, or the legality of letting that boy go into live fire situations back when the suit was still designed for infantry.

They provided, so he had performed.

Either way, 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 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 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 fairly new mode of 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, even though he thought this was a stupid question. It didn't matter what he thought. "Of course, sir."

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. "Good, because this is important. In fact, it might be the most important operation the United States has launched in years."

Epsilon gave no response. He didn't know how much the Commander was exaggerating. Maybe he was right. Perhaps this would be the most important operation in years. All that mattered was that Epsilon was being selected for it, and that most operations deemed 'important' in the past had included lethal force.

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 you're already familiar with your destination."

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...

"Sir, I'm being sent on a data retrieval mission? Per the Alaska Treaty all data that could be gained has already been shared with us."

The Commander chuckled coldly, seemingly amused by the assumption being made. "Oh really? 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, there's all sorts of secrets out there no one wants to share. It's not like we told everyone how to make nukes right after we figured it out. The problem is, this time there's information we really can't afford to go without."

"That being, Commander?"

"We were receiving the footage from the Silver Gospel even when it went rogue. Most of what it went up against we were already familiar with, but there was one I.S. it encountered that was far beyond anything the world has seen. It made most of the Gen 3 frames fighting alongside it look like toys."

Personally Epsilon found this hard to believe. "How can that be? Most of the world is just now starting to experiment with Gen 3 frames."

"If we knew that we wouldn't need to send you, now would we? Diplomatic pokes here and there have done nothing for us. No one seems to know where it came from, or what it's capable of. But from what we saw in the Gospel's final hour, we need to know what makes that thing tick. We can't even begin to catch up to technology like that unless we know how to emulate it right from its guts. That's why your mission is so important."

Having all of this revealed to him, Epsilon admitted that data retrieval did sound a lot more important by now. "I understand sir. I'll get that data, no matter what."

The Commander gave a firm nod. "See that you do. I don't need to remind you that your... 'salary' hinges on your operational effectiveness?"

"No sir."

"Then head to the hangar bay and prepare to deploy. You'll be briefed further as the need arises."

With one last salute, Epsilon turned on his heel and headed out of the room, determined to succeed on the mission he had been given, for the sake of those that counted on him to come through.

With little time to waste, Epsilon quickly made his way through the secret military base that he had called home for years. He had seen the steel walls and pipes of every hallway a dozen times, and he passed by every turret armed camera and security checkpoint with ease. He didn't flinch at the fully masked and faceless guards at what felt like every turn, and he knew most of the guard dogs by name.

It was a place that he was familiar enough with to make every detail pass by without much notice, which one would have definitely considered strange considered the nature of the environment.

When he reached the main hangar, Epsilon was forced to endure one of the most thorough security checks in the base, save the front doors. Naturally he was still armed with Exeter, so the searched boiled down to him allowing the helmet to fold away long enough for a facial recognition scan by the nearest security camera. In the span of a few seconds, the base security system took every angle of his young face into account, along with the chocolate brown hair and the oceanic blue eyes, and confirmed that he was who he claimed to be. Even so, the guards still called in to the Commander's office to make sure he was supposed to be there.

As soon as everything was in order, Epsilon was waved into the main hangar, a large rectangular chamber that could have housed at least two Boeing 747s. It of course had none of those. What it did have was dozens of cutting edge fighters of all nationalities, most of them being modified for special operations by numerous engineers and mechanics. There seemed to be a great deal of work being carried out on a Russian Sukhoi Su-57, but the reason for this heavy modification to a PAK-FA fighter eluded Epsilon, and he didn't spend much time on it anyway.

Ignoring the mysterious amount of work being put into a single jet, Epsilon quickly scanned the dozens of people in the hangar for the one he knew he was supposed to be looking for. Naturally, when Epsilon had first been brought into the fold here, he had been awkwardly out of place, being a twelve year old boy and all. The first person he had gotten along with ended up being an ridiculously friendly, amiable guy by the name of Marcus Dougley, a sandy blonde with brown eyes and a pair of glasses. Ironically, that same guy ended up being chief of the Exeter development team, so he and Epsilon had ended up spending a lot of time together. While Epsilon was more or less comfortable with everyone in the base, Marcus was perhaps the only person he would have called his friend.

Considering that he was wearing a highly sophisticated helmet with sensors rivaling any I.S., it did not take long for Epsilon to pick out the one person he was looking for among the busy crowd, and he made his way towards the slightly older young man with little hesitation.

"Marcus. I don't suppose you know anything about this mysterious I.S. I'll be investigating? The Commander didn't tell me anything."

The shameless nerd gave him an easygoing smile as he approached. "I wish I could tell you something that actually matters, but there's unfortunately no time. Don't worry though, I've got it covered anyway."

"No time? I doubt the I.S. is going anywhere anytime soon..."

"Yeah, but you know how things are around here. You get orders, you gotta act on them immediately. Besides, what I'm about to tell you is way more important."

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. He didn't give any explanation, so naturally Epsilon had to ask.

"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 for the moment. "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 Skynet 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 almost afraid to ask why."

The tech wizard walked Epsilon over to the massive, open hangar doors that provided a wonderful view of the ocean. "Well you see, Cerberus has a... um... minor flaw."

Particularly unnerved by this piece of vague 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. Besides, it's not as bad as you think. It's only got this personality split for a short time."

"How exactly?"

"Well, it cycles through a bunch of different personalities whenever it begins interacting with a new person. It's a testing algorithm that will eventually allow it to settle on a personality archtype that best suits the person it is dealing with. So it will be all over the place at first, but eventually it'll settle on what it determines is the best personality to partner with your own."

Epsilon sighed again and stopped in front of the open hangar bay doors, glancing out at the ocean spray that lapped at the rocky crags hiding the base. "And this isn't something you purposefully designed?"

"Nope, just a kink that I couldn't actually get rid of. Besides, by the time this problem manifested Cerberus was essentially already sentient, so it would have been kind of immoral to cut away parts of it by then."

Epsilon gave him a cold stare that was pretty easy to detect even behind his helmet, but Marcus didn't drop his smile at all. "Don't give me that look, it'll be fine! It's nothing like that! You'll see. It'll activate once you're in the air, and then you'll see just how great it really is!"

Even though he laughed at this, Marcus quickly grew serious. "Listen, if you're lucky, this mission will go off without a hitch. No fighting, no diplomatic nightmares, nothing. But if anything does go wrong... you find a way to tell me. I'll find some way to help."

Allowing his angular helmet to recede for just a moment, Epsilon smiled appreciatively at him. "Always nice to know that I have a genius watching my back. For now, why not just wish me luck? I'll be charging right into a lair of unstable teenage girls, you know?"

"As if you won't enjoy that part. I'll do it anyway though. Good luck. Try to come back in one piece. You've got people that need you."

Rearming himself fully, Epsilon nodded as he leaped out of the hangar and allowed the thrusters on his back to save him from death by gravity. He didn't need anyone to tell him that he was being relied on. He knew how important it was for him to please his benefactors, and as he rocketed through the skies, he told himself that he was prepared for whatever his mission would eventually entail.

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.