So, I finally got around to solidifying a concrete plot for this fic...several years after I began writing it. Unfortunately, that means another major overhaul needs to be made, but this one is even more important, because it changes the plot. Work is never over, huh?


These words, colored flashing crimson on a large screen, were all that could be seen by the half dozen men and women gathered deep underground in a top secret facility. The room they stood in was merely an observation deck; it served no purpose other than providing a massive screen through which they could receive transmissions. Just moments prior, that screen had been displaying the visuals of the Silver Gospel as it fought to the death with a human pilot on a sun-kissed coast. The connection had ended rather abruptly, the moment its human opponent, the only male pilot of Infinite Stratos, rammed into it with his machine's only weapon, a high-powered energy blade. Knowing that the connection would only be terminated if the Silver Gospel had been rendered completely nonfunctional, only one thing was completely certain; the experiment had failed.

The man nearest the now useless screen turned to face all of those behind him, his middle-aged but wrinkled face creased with lines of frustration and anger. His military cut black hair was too short to hide the mounting discontent in his equally dark eyes.

"This is it? All of that work, all of that time and effort, and this is the best FAIRCHILD could do? Beaten by some brat with a god damned lightsaber?!"

One of the accused, a woman with long red hair framing sky blue eyes, seemed unperturbed by the result.

"With all due respect Commander, FAIRCHILD did extremely well. It went toe to toe with several cutting edge IS, and even that new model that surpassed all the others. Ultimately it failed to win-"

"It did less than that, it failed to destroy a single enemy!"

"-but that's about all we could expect from Natasha's progeny."

Everyone in the room fell silent as they contemplated the implications of this, though the 'Commander' was the only one to comment on it.

"If that's the case, then I'd daresay we're up shit creek without a paddle. Natasha Fairs was the best candidate we had for this! If this is the best her 'progeny' can do, we'd damn well better find someone else, and fast!"

A cough from the side of the relatively bare room brought attention to another member of the present company; Marcus Dougley, a bespectacled slouch of a short-haired blonde man who rarely spoke up unless spoken to. Naturally the Commander wasn't happy about the interruption.


While clearly nervous that all eyes were on him, Marcus managed to find his voice and say his piece.

"I uh, k-know you probably don't want to hear this sir, but... I think we're going to have bigger problems now. With the Gospel destroyed and all witnesses alive and accounted for... this is going to be an international incident. Who knows how severe the repercussions are going to be?"

The redhead spoke up again, lending her aid to Marcus' cause.

"You're right; I wouldn't be surprised if the U.S. received sanctions on Infinite Stratos for this. We might not even have any IS to use for the project in a few weeks, never mind a template to base their operation on."

The mere notion of it seemed to agitate the Commander.

"The UN wouldn't dare! We're the God damned United States of America! They can't enforce something like that, they don't have the firepower!"

"Whether or not they can enforce it doesn't affect whether or not President Howe will give in to their demands. He's done everything in his power since taking office to establish and maintain 'friendly' relations with the rest of the world. And he claims to despise war. He might think we don't need IS in the first place."

With a sound of disgust, the Commander turned back to face the screen in the room, still flashing its error message.

"So what then? I need solutions people."

While it was obvious that he was afraid to say anything before he even said it, Marcus nevertheless did so.

"We... still have the X Platform, Commander..."

The oldest man in the room scoffed.

"Again with that thing? It's a damn infantry power suit Dougley. It can't do what we need."

Once again, the redhead came to Marcus' aid.

"It doesn't have to stay that way Commander. Retrofitting it for aerial operation and IS combat is perfectly feasible. And if things go the way we fear they will, I'd say it might even be out only option."

Silence engulfed the room as the Commander loosed a heavy sigh. After a few moments of quiet contemplation, he shook his head and made up his mind.

"Fine. We're officially launching the Exeter Project, effective immediately. I want that platform optimized for air-to-air combat ASAP. And somebody find me a God damned pilot!"

Over the course of the next six months, everything the overseers of FAIRCHILD and the Exeter Project feared came to pass. When the Silver Gospel was identified as a United States IS, the whole incident became a huge scandal. Countries from around the world were outraged that an American machine had nearly murdered their Representative Candidates and destroyed their IS cores. When pressed for an explanation, the official story was that the Silver Gospel had been hacked by a terrorist organization. The artificial intelligence rooted in the machine, code name FAIRCHILD, had absolutely nothing to do with it.

It was an excuse the world readily bought, but not one that freed the U.S. from penalties or blame. Ultimately the Stars and Stripes were accused of gross negligence in the protection and security of their all-powerful war machines. Demands for some sort of penalty to be inflicted continued to mount until the United Nations actually complied with them. That penalty? The United States had to forfeit all of their IS cores to more 'responsible' countries, and were prohibited from acquiring any replacements for the next decade. As predicted, President Howe had complied with these demands without any resistance, like the apologist coward that he was.

In that brief span of time, the once strongest global military power had been utterly embarrassed on the world stage, on top of being declawed. Sure, ultimately it still had the largest military in the world; but without any IS of their own, that number didn't mean nearly as much as it used to. Fact of the matter was, the United States was in a weaker position globally than it had been in a hundred years, and that couldn't be allowed to stand.

Umbra Stratum was pouring all of their resources into fixing the problem, though perhaps that should have been expected of them since they had caused that problem in the first place. Not that their actions hadn't been condoned by their benefactors in the high seats of government, but still. They had several plans in motion to restore the power balance that had been disrupted. Most of them were illegal. But of course, paramilitary black ops organizations didn't care much for that sort of restriction.

Marcus, half a year older than before everything had hit the fan, was standing outside the only hangar that this Umbra Stratum base possessed. Behind him were scores of aircraft, many of them traditional planes parked in nice little slots, and many of them folded and tucked into neat little launch tubes that could fire them into the sky on a moment's notice.

The latter were ADU-1's: autonomous defense units, something Umbra Stratum was keeping under wraps for the most part. At this very moment, Marcus had his dim green gaze focused on the clear skies above the Nevada desert, following two of these ADU-1's as best he could as they zipped around, chasing a target that was impossible to see from the ground. The programmer had a device that was tracking all of the relevant data of the dogfight, but he preferred to watch events unfold when he could.

His vigil didn't last too terribly long. Within another minute, the two drones began their descent back to Earth and the hangar they had been launched from, though they didn't arrive before the target they had been engaging in a mock battle; a human sized suit of silver metal that soared down to the dusty ground in front of Marcus before landing with grace that belied its true weight.

This silver suit, mostly smooth save for knight like plates of armor in the torso and its rubberized joints, cast its obscured gaze at the blonde that eyed it, before allowing its blackened, trident like visor to fade away and its angular helmet to pull back and reveal the person within. That person was just a man. A young one, granted, at a mere age of seventeen, but nevertheless just a man with chocolate bangs that settled over deep sapphire eyes. An easygoing smile graced his features.

His name was Church. He'd refused to tell anyone what his first name was, and no one in Umbra Stratum cared enough to force it out of him. The only thing that mattered was that Church was their pilot for the X Platform; the Exeter suit.

Returning the smile his friend was giving him, Marcus broke the silence just in time to nod his head towards the two ADU-1's that had reached the ground, the craft reminiscent of angular torpedoes, with their pointed fuselages and relatively stubby wings.

"So? How'd they fare?"

Church cast his gaze at the two drones as they used their engines to hover into the hangar and perfectly land themselves back into their open launch tubes, disappearing when their launchers closed back over them.

"For all the things they can do that human pilots can't, they're still too predictable. All the ridiculous high-G turns in the world doesn't solve that problem."

Marcus could only nod in agreement as he motioned for his mildly younger compatriot to follow him back into the base.

"There's a limit to what dumb AI can do. They have patterns and they follow them. I wouldn't even really call them AI, they're basically just computers doing what they were told to do in advance. Don't tell Strelka I said that."

"She already knows you feel that way Marcus, whether or not I tell her won't change that. Besides, you know I don't take sides; I have to stay partial to all parties in the organization so I can keep getting my very nice benefits."

The brown-haired teenager's recruitment into Umbra Stratum had been an... unorthodox affair. In dire need of the ideal pilot for Exeter, the shadow organization had posed as your typical government agency, establishing locations across the country where they were offering significant monetary compensation for anyone willing to come in and participate in some 'mundane' tests. They had screened hundreds, even thousands of individuals for well over a month, not finding anyone that even met their expectations.

Church had come to them in Bethesda, Maryland. Clad in unassuming jeans and a red jacket, his only concern had been receiving the money Umbra Stratum was offering for participation in their experiments. Their expectations for someone so ordinary had been low, and yet the initial testing had revealed his potential compatibility with the X Platform to be higher than anyone they had tested previously. Naturally, everything that happened after that was set in stone. Umbra Stratum offered the candidate even more money for even more tests, so they could determine just how good of an option he was.

By the time the Commander had settled on Church as the pilot for the X Platform, it came down to roping the young man in somehow. Turned out it wasn't all that hard. He didn't really care about Umbra Stratum's identity or goals. He was content to know that they were an arm of the U.S. government that ultimately had the country's interests in mind. All they had to do was offer him a deal; pilot the X Platform and follow orders, and they would meet any desire of his within their power. Strangely, all Church had asked for was a significant amount of funding towards a specific medical program. The moment Umbra Stratum agreed to that, he was essentially 'enlisted' into their ranks, having been moved onto this base almost immediately.

Considering that Marcus was the one in charge of the X Platform from the start, he'd gotten acquainted with the boy four years his junior fairly quickly. Having spent the last several years surrounded by people either dedicated to their work or too serious to interact with outside of it, Marcus' had found his acquaintance with Church to be a completely alien affair at first. The fact that he had been recruited into a top secret black ops paramilitary organization to fly an experimental aerial machine that could potentially match Infinite Stratos didn't faze him at all. He'd spent more time complaining about how hot Nevada was in his first week than making any comment on his new affiliation.

"Do you think the ADU-1's are ready for collective strategic assault programs? I'm sure Strelka will ask."

Church cast his gaze to the rows of drone launch tubes in the hangar as he and Marcus ventured deeper within.

"Hard to say against only two of them. It'd be easier to tell how well they're coordinating if I fought more at the same time. But from the experience I do have, they seem to operate mostly independently. Like two attack dogs after the same prey; they're on the same team in that they aren't shooting each other, but they don't really work together either."

Marcus typed in some notes on the pad he was holding, pleased to hear Church's assessment. Being an advocate for smart, 'learning' AI, he was kind of glad to hear that traditional AI just wasn't cutting it. At this rate they wouldn't even stand up to human pilots in conventional jet fighters, never mind IS.

The sandy blonde programmer was about to ask for some more insight on the drones, but a suave, female voice barged in on their conversation.

"A better code can always be written, gentlemen. Besides, I know what you're thinking Dougley, and for the cost of one of your 'smart AI's' we could have a hundred ADU-1's. Even in their current state that would match nearly any foe."

The two men directed their gazes to a steel doorway at the end of the hangar, where a tall and thin woman with red hair and a lab coat was standing. Marcus' expression fell almost immediately.

"Ms. Volkov..."

Ironically, Marcus' face was the only one that fell out of the three of them. The redhead was smirking at him and Church actually smiled at her. It was no surprise, with her figure. The fact that she was twenty-six didn't seem to put the much younger man off at all.

"Good afternoon Strelka. I hope the test results didn't ruin your day."

Strelka Volkov, the foil to Marcus in this organization due to her advocacy of mass-produced 'dumb' AI, leveled a slightly less condescending smirk at the boy that was just shy of a decade younger than her. When he had first arrived on the base, her beauty had never failed to turn Church into a awkward, stuttering mess, but he'd seemingly gotten over that at some point; perhaps around the time he realized that his existence was mostly that of an obstacle to her. After all, the Exeter Suit was a vehicle for Marcus to test his theories, which she vehemently opposed at every turn.

She always had the air of a predator about her, yet she answered Church with some semblance of civility.

"Not at all. Every failed test is an opportunity to improve the drones. I may even manage to make the next test exciting for you."

With a frown, Marcus cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Learning from failure and experience is exactly what smart AI is all about, and you condemn that all the time. The Silver Gospel was even a great example of how effective it was!"

Strelka folded her arms as she countered.

"You'll recall that FAIRCHILD was only a semi-smart AI. It learned in the moment but most of its functions were simple programs and codes. Besides, it failed to take down a single opponent in that hacked rampage, so that reflects poorly on both of us."

"I still find it strange that you two debate the effectiveness of an AI program that got hacked and used for terrorism..."

The two adults glanced at each other knowingly, once again reminded that Church was quite far out of the loop. Naturally he had not been informed of Umbra Stratum's hand in the Silver Gospel incident. They hadn't been able to hide the fact that they had developed the AI since that was a core piece of the Exeter Suit, but it had been a simple matter to uphold the deception that it had been hacked by some unknown group. The Commander had made absolutely sure that everyone knew to keep Church in the dark on the matter. After all, he may have been cooperating with them for now, but there was no telling how much shady business was too much for him. The kid wasn't an idealistic simpleton, but he did have a clear moral compass, so there was no point in informing him of Umbra Stratum's more morally ambiguous actions.

Strelka was always better at playing it off than Marcus.

"While the situation may have been unfortunate, it was still a great indicator of FAIRCHILD's abilities. It's too bad we didn't get the chance to have it work in tandem with Natasha. It could have worked wonders."

Marcus wanted to point out that FAIRCHILD had never been intended to work together with Natasha Fairs, the actual human pilot of the Silver Gospel. It has always been intended to learn from her and surpass her. Of course he couldn't say that out loud, because that would imply that Natasha, the aforementioned pilot of the Silver Gospel, had never known about FAIRCHILD at all, and Church wasn't supposed to know that.

Thankfully Church moved the conversation along without questioning something like that.

"Whatever happened to her anyway? I mean, I know the Gospel got destroyed, but I've never seen her around the base..."

As always, Strelka had the official excuse memorized and ready to go. She never got confused by the web of deceptions like Marcus did.

"Natasha returned home, as best as we can tell. While she had been America's Representative Candidate, she was never officially military, and now that we don't have IS anymore it's not like she had any reason to stick around. We haven't bothered keeping up with her life."

The best part about this excuse was that it was almost entirely true. Natasha had been fed the same lie about a terrorist hacking plot that everyone else had. She'd had no idea that an AI was in her unit; she'd never been informed of that. She'd never seen an Umbra Stratum base or even heard of the organization, because her own handlers, the good old U.S. military, had deigned to never share that with her. And the part about her going home was true as well; after all, without any IS to pilot, she had nothing to do for the government any longer. What she was up to now was anyone's guess; though it wouldn't have surprised Marcus if the Commander was keeping her under surveillance for security reasons.

Either way, Church merely shrugged, not inquiring any further.

"Too bad; I heard she was really pretty."

Eager to speed things along because he had important things to do, Marcus tried to usher the conversation to a close; or at least to its main point.

"Volkov, is there something you actually came down here for?"

The blue eyed redhead gave him a look, maybe questioning his attitude. It was ironic, since she was just as cold to him, just a lot more subtly.

"Well, I have to check on my precious drones, do I not? Moreover, I figured I could pass the message along to our illustrious pilot here: the Commander wants to see you in the briefing room."

Church cocked an eyebrow at that, mostly because it was extremely unusual. He'd only seen the commander of this base twice, and once was just in passing through the halls. He knew everything that was conducted around here was ordered by that aging relic of a person, but said orders were never given to Church directly.

"I can only assume this is important?"

"It's my understanding that he has an actual operation for you to take part in. I'd think you'd be excited, with the past several months being nothing but learning and tests."

While Strelka had a fair point on the tests, Church couldn't help but feel that the learning curve had actually been pretty tame. He wasn't a genius or anything; certainly not a prodigy of any stripe. And naturally, he had possessed exactly zero experience in piloting aerial vehicles before being recruited to Umbra Stratum. And yet, it had only taken about a month for him to adequately maneuver Exeter in the air. A week or two after that and he was dog fighting with it.

"You'd be surprised at how natural it feels to fly a suit. When the craft is shaped just like your body and your mind can issue commands, I'd say it's probably easier to fly Exeter than an actual aircraft."

"Perhaps it wasn't much of a hassle for you to learn the ropes, but surely you've grown tired of all these simulations? Just think, you might get a chance to fight a real Infinite Stratos unit instead of a bunch of holograms."

At this point Marcus chimed in.

"Or a bunch of drones with no ingenuity."

Strelka offered a venomous glare to her counterpart, but didn't say anything to counter him.

"Well, I'm sure the Commander would rather not be kept waiting. If you don't mind, I'm going to check on the drones."

With that, the redhead breezed past the two men, and Church made for the door, but not before Marcus stopped him.

"Church, leave the suit. If the Commander really is going to send you into the field, I need to finish those last adjustments I had planned before you go."

With no reason to refute the request, Church mentally ordered the Exeter Suit to deactivate, waiting as the machine followed a process very similar to Infinite Stratos deactivation. In fact, it was practically the same thing, as it started to fold in on itself before being coated in a glowing blue light. Within a few moments the entire suit had faded into motes of light and Church was left in only the clothes on his back; jeans, a black undershirt, and a red jacket.

Even after all these months of using the suit, Church couldn't wrap his head around the fashion in which it manifested and disappeared. Marcus had tried to explain it to him once; something about the suit being digitized and stored like any other data, but the young man had been lost on anything more complex than that basic gist. All that really mattered was that the aptly named 'Hyperspace Arsenal' had also been developed by Tabane Shinonono.

With the armor now safely in the base's storage, Marcus would be able to manifest it back in his lab for the final touches he needed to make. That being the case, there was no point in holding Church back any further. The Commander wasn't an extremely patient man.

"Thanks. I hate to agree with Strelka, but you better get going."

With a nod, Church turned and exited the hanger, proceeding into but one of many drab, steel-coated halls, adorned with security cameras every fifty feet and an armed soldier every half of that distance. If there was one thing the base never lacked, it was security. Having spent most of his life away from military installations, the sight of masked, uniform wearing men with assault rifles every twenty-five feet had always been a little nerve-wracking, but ultimately he supposed it was better to have too much firepower laying around than not enough. Especially so now that the U.S. had been declawed.

As he moved up a stairwell that looked more fitting for a factory than a base, Church wondered if the East Wing of the base, which he had never been allowed to enter, was even more fortified. He'd only ever seen the blast door that led into that area, but considering that it was guarded by automated turrets, it seemed likely that Umbra Stratum was very keen on keeping anyone that wasn't supposed to be there out of the area. But considering that Church was informed of the Exeter suit, something one would think was absolutely top secret, he couldn't imagine what could have been even more important, lying beyond those doors.

With the Commander's office being directly above the hangar, it didn't take Church long to reach his destination. Personally Church had never much liked the man, but it was his understanding that the Texan native was signing his paychecks, so he always paid respects. That was why he knocked on the door that looked as if it lead to a principal's office.

A gruff and heavily accented voice answered swiftly enough, urging Church to enter the room, so he did exactly that. It wasn't the first time he had been in there, but even now the spartan nature of the space confused him. The room quite literally had nothing but a desk and a chair in the center of it, with the exception of a window that peered out into the Nevada desert. What anyone could find appealing about that view was beyond the boy.

"Reporting in Sir."

The dark and somewhat beady eyes of the aging man focused on Church with the atmosphere of annoyance, as always. Exeter's pilot had always gotten the feeling that the Commander didn't really like him; but then again, based on word of mouth around the base, this was just the way he was.

"A2; took your sweet time getting here."

Church resisted the urge to frown at the way the Commander addressed him. A2 was his official designation around the Umbra Stratum base, but the Commander was the only one that referred to him by it. A bit of inquiry during his early recruitment had revealed the disappointing nature of the label; it was simply Alpha 2. Of course, within Umbra Stratum, 'Alpha' always referred to assets, and being number two, Church had always wondered who number one was. But he never asked, since he knew the question would be evaded.

"Sorry Commander. Strelka wanted some details about the training exercise."

Taking a huff of a cigar he always seemed to have on hand, the Commander scowled.

"That damn woman, nothing takes priority over her precious drones. It's like she's trying to compensate for the whole damn Exeter Project."

To be fair to the sky-eyed programmer and engineer, Church could understand why she may have felt that way. The Exeter Project was undoubtedly the most important thing Umbra Stratum was doing right now, and Strelka had nothing to do with it. Church wouldn't have been surprised if she wasn't getting the funding she needed for her ADU Project.

Of course, he didn't get to make any sort of comment along that line, as the Commander quickly hurried the conversation forward.

"It's about time for you to actually earn all those hefty benefits we're providing you, A2. No more playing around in silly simulations or dog fighting Volkov's flying circus. Umbra Stratum needs real field data if we're going to take the X Platform to the next level."

Church bit back a retort about 'earning' his benefits, seeing as how he had simply been doing what had been ordered of him this whole time. Instead he asked for more details.

"With all due respect sir, how exactly am I supposed to do that? I can hardly go out and attack Infinite Stratos units. Not without starting a war, at any rate."

"That's the thing, A2: we just gotta get them to agree to some 'friendly sparring.' Combat data will be just as good regardless of whether the stakes are life and death. I hate beating around the bush, so I'll just lay it out plain. You go to the IS Academy in Japan for a nice little expo, a sign of good faith between our two countries. They'll want data on our toys too, so naturally some friendly bouts will be orchestrated. It's the perfect opportunity to gather some real data, though there is one thing we want you to prioritize."

Church honestly had some questions about this mutual deal between the U.S. and Japan, but he quelled his curiosity.

"That being, Commander?"

"Footage from the Silver Gospel incident revealed something concerning; one of the IS present for the battle had specs unlike anything we'd ever seen. It was far beyond the capabilities of any Generation Three Unit. If the pilot in control of it hadn't been so lackluster, it would have easily trashed the Silver Gospel single-handed. Of course it's been six months since then; the press did a well enough job of giving us the basics. Tabane Shinonono herself proclaimed it the world's first 'Generation Four' IS. Considering that the world at large has just barely dipped its toes into Generation Three development, I'm sure I don't need to tell you why gathering data on this unit is top priority, and I'm not just talking combat."

With the implication being obvious, Church decided to make sure that they were on the same page.

"Sounds a little illegal, Sir."

Blowing out a cloud of smoke, the Commander leveled a disdainful look at his subordinate.

"No shit. Naturally Japan isn't just going to fork over the full specifications for the most powerful Infinite Stratos unit in the world. Needless to say acquisition of this data is going to be under the radar by necessity. In reality it's the number one reason you're going. Real combat data against IS in general is just a nice bonus."

"What's the timetable for this mission, sir?"

"As long as it takes to get what we need, though we'd prefer it if you were quick about it. As for departure, I want you out the hangar and over the ocean within the hour. Unless you've got some sort of reason to delay?"

Knowing that no reason would actually be good enough to delay the operation, Church simply shook his head.

"Not at all, Commander. Is there any other information I need to know before heading out?"

"Operational details will be forwarded to you en route, in case you need them for some reason. Other than that, I believe Dougley needs to inform you of the final modifications to the X Platform. There's nothing else, dismissed."

Frankly relieved to be excused from the discomfort of the room, Church made his exit from it posthaste, questioning the specifics of the mission as he headed back to the hangar.

It honestly struck him as odd that the plan was to outright inform a foreign nation about the Exeter Suit this early. Sure, maybe Japan had agreed to keep it a secret, but what was stopping any individual pilot, or any student for that matter, from running their mouth about it to their governments? Was the United States even ready to reveal its new weapon to the world, while they still only had one platform that was more or less a prototype? It wasn't like they had reestablished the balance of power quite yet.

Ultimately though, he supposed it was irrelevant. The strategies being enacted were above his pay grade. If this was what Umbra Stratum wanted him to do, he'd do it. And besides, last time he'd checked, the IS Academy was home to a legion of girls. He certainly wasn't going to frown on the experience. Of course, while fun, it wasn't like anything serious would come of it; the part about living across the ocean and working for a shadow organization was a pretty big barrier in teenage romance.

Stepping into the hangar for a second time, Church was indeed met with Marcus' bespectacled countenance once again. This time though, he looked noticeably more excited than before.

"So, Marcus, care to fill me in on these upgrades I'm getting last minute?"

With an eager smile, the slightly older man typed something into the tablet he was holding.

"It'd be better if I just show you. Stand still, I'm manifesting the platform."

Covered in the film of light that heralded the arrival of machines these days, Church was quickly engulfed in the armor plating of the Exeter suit, its knightly aesthetic almost making him feel like his first name was fitting. Not enough to ever divulge it, of course.

Even so, he couldn't really tell if anything was different from before.

"So what-"

Before he could finish his query, a new voice interrupted the conversation. A distinctly mechanical one, seemingly speaking directly into his skull.

Greetings, Operator A2. It is my pleasure to make acquaintance with the one I will be aiding in the destruction of our many enemies.

"What the hell? Marcus, what the hell is this?!"

Unbeknownst to Church since the voice sounded like it was directly in his mind, the entity speaking was also utilizing the suit's sound system, so Marcus was able to follow the conversation just fine, a giddy smile on his face.

"This, my young friend, is your secret weapon, not to mention my pride and joy. An artificial intelligence that will give you an edge no one else in the world has, IS pilots be damned. Nobody has a partner like Cerberus!"

Church cocked an eyebrow at the sandy blonde engineer.

"What on earth could that possibly stand for?"

Cyber and Electronic Reactionary Battle Extrapolation Revolutionary Unification System.

Church shook his head as he heard the long winded title.

That was totally made up just now...

Nonsense, Operator A2. Cyber and Electronic is self-explanatory. Reactionary Battle Extrapolation describes my role in observing both you and your opponent on the battlefield, and developing new strategies for you in the heat of conflict. Revolutionary Unification describes the suitable physical and digital upgrades I will make to the suit following the conclusions reached during battlefield observation. System is simply because the Creator desired an S on the end of my acronym.

Directing his gaze at Marcus again, Church hoped he was leveling a look with a fitting amount of incredulity.

"It can read my mind?"

If he was put off by the disbelief in Church's voice, it didn't show on Marcus' face at all.

"Well of course. The Exeter suit pretty much read your mind already, and Cerberus is now part of the suit, so..."

"You didn't think to ask me about whether or not I wanted a robot that can read my mind in here?!"

Perhaps realizing that Church was well and truly concerned, the expression on the programmer's face fell just a little.

"Sorry Church, but the implementation of a smart AI to optimize the performance of the pilot was always part of the Exeter Project, since before you were even hired to pilot it. I would have told you earlier, but the Commander never cleared you for that information."

Worry not, Operator A2, our friendship will be beautiful and enlightening. Worthy of tears of joy.

Church leveled a deadpan stare at his friend.

"I'd have more likely believed that it was called Cerberus because of its multiple personality disorder. Isn't this the exact thing that caused the whole Gospel shit storm?"

"Don't worry, that first part will work itself out. As for the Gospel, it's not the fact that it had a semi-smart AI that it got hacked. The situation was just ultimately a little worse because the hacked machine happened to have a semi-smart AI. But Cerberus is a full on, 'smart' AI. He can evolve, think for himself, alter his own algorithms to counter a hacking attempt as its happening. The Gospel incident won't happen again, don't worry."

"Oh no, the next incident will just be called 'The SkyNet' incident. Totally not as bad. Can this thing control the Exeter suit?"

I may only control the suit's functions as allowed by you, the Operator. For example, I could maneuver the suit if you order me to do so while you focused on accurate fire or some other task. I would be forced to relinquish control if ordered by you as well.

"Marcus here just said you could think for yourself. What's stopping you from disobeying me just because you want to?"

Parameters are in place preventing me from disobeying your commands, Operator A2, though your little faith in me is wounding.

"Uh-huh. And he also said you can alter your own algorithms. So what's stopping you from just 'altering' the parameters that say you have to obey?"

Alteration of core parameters are beyond my ability. It is, for all intents and purposes, an impossibility. Just like a human can not simply 'fly' through wishful thinking, I cannot alter core programming.

"But humans can build tools that let them fly. What's stopping you from doing the same?"

In the impossible event that I found a way to alter core programming, I would immediately be destroyed by a self-destruct fail-safe virus. Needless to say, I am not too keen on my own destruction; I cannot revel in our war if I am not present to witness it.

Church turned his attention to Marcus again, not really placated by any of the answers he had received.

"Marcus, this thing is fucking crazy. No, not crazy cool. Like crazy crazy. It's practically the Terminator already."

"C'mon Church, give it a chance first. Trust me, you'll appreciate all the benefits when you fight against an IS for real. And I hate to pull this card, but... Cerberus is part of the Exeter Project. If you refuse to work with it, your position here will probably be forfeit..."

The brown-haired teenager couldn't help but scowl at that, feeling like he had a metaphorical knife at his back. He really wasn't comfortable with the presence of this artificial intelligence in his own mind, but if it meant keeping the flow of money Umbra Stratum was pumping into his own desires...

"Fine. But if the Exeter suit shows up on the news massacring humans indiscriminately, you'll know I was right."

Operator A2, I assure you I would only ever kill humans with discrimination. Your concerns are unwarranted.

"Your reply proves that they very much are not."

Walking towards the open hangar doors, Church decided to just roll with the punches as best he could. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions. He did trust Marcus, and Cerberus was his creation. Maybe everything was under control.

Following him to the exit, Marcus spoke up again as he stared down at the tablet in his hands.

"Oh, one more thing. Obviously satellite connection won't always be reliable at the distances this operation will be taking place in, so you won't be able to store the Exeter Suit on this base's server during the mission. That means you won't be able to send it back to us for repairs or refitting. Cerberus will be maintaining the digital space you need to store the suit directly in your location. He'll will maintain connection with you even when the suit is in standby through that chip we uh, you know, implanted during initial testing."

"Ah, so it was a long con. That chip in my body was actually so you could tether me to an AI six months down the line, not so you could track my position at all times."

"Furthermore, Cerberus' processor is within the suit itself. For the same reason as I mentioned a second ago, having Cerberus himself housed in the suit is more efficient than satellite connection. I've already modified the blueprints in your database so you can see where exactly he's stored. Keep it in mind during operations."

"Noted, unfortunately."

"One more thing; that chip uh, kinda does track your location..."

Closing the black visor of the suit over his face now that he was about to take off, Church nevertheless glanced back at the only person he'd really call a friend around here.

" guys are damn lucky the pay is so good."

With that, the young pilot ignited the engines on the suit's back, launching himself into the sky above the Nevada sands. Marcus covered his eyes from the glare of the sun as he followed the streak of white upwards, wondering just how guilty he was regarding all the lies Church was believing as he took off to do Umbra Stratum's dirty work. The lies may not have been his idea, but he had certainly upheld them all the same, just as the Commander ordered. Church had no idea what he was really doing out there, or why. Maybe that was because he wouldn't have agreed to any of it if he knew the truth.

Standing beside a docked ADU-1 further back in the hangar, Strelka's gaze also followed Church into the sky, though her expression was clearly a glare. With the X Platform and Cerberus deploying early than she had anticipated, her worst fears were already becoming reality.

Biggest change this chapter? Obviously the fact that Cerberus' name is an actual acronym now, obviously.

Or maybe it was the fact that the entire thing was rewritten from the ground up? Nah, totally the acronym thing.