The sun was beginning to set, and for Valerie Walker, it couldn't be soon enough. She was not a normally superstitious woman, but this was the thirteenth time doing this. The mission was simple enough: sneak in to the Blaine Corporate Headquarters, download as much information as she could from the main computer, then get out again. It would be the thirteenth time the Samurai system she was carrying would be used.
"Relax, Walker," she whispered to herself. "It's just like any other mission." Val set her PBC rifle against her shoulder. The Blaine Tower was the tallest building in the world at nearly 1200 meters, a full hundred higher than the roof of the one Val was waiting on. She peered into the eyepiece of the 15 power scope, watching the lone guard pace slowly back and forth, and waited.
"Relax, Val," Mack's voice came over her earpiece. In her lab 25 klicks away, Dr. Mariko Mishuri rolled her wheelchair around to get a look at her partner's vitals monitor. Val's heart rate, blood pressure and respiration were slightly elevated. They were still well within safe, normal range, but they still betrayed the other woman's nervousness.
"I hear you." But the readout stayed the same. Val ran a hand through her short red hair, trying-she told herself- to keep it straight in the blowing wind. She kept her sight centered on the guard's head, checking for the twentieth time that her rifle was on its lowest setting, where a head shot would incapacitate the target without killing it.
It wasn't that Val had never taken a life in more than fifteen years of defending her country. She had, by her own count, killed 147 in ground combat, and had 17 and a half confirmed kills as an aviator. Val was not a coward, and did not shy from killing if it were necessary, but she was just as happy to pull off such a clandestine operation without a body count.
"It's almost dark enough." Half of that was for herself, and the other half for her remote partner.
"Almost," Mack's reply came.
The roof guard was looking in the wrong direction when the sun finally set. "Now!" Mack ordered firmly.
She had barely finished the one word when Val set her rifle aside and pulled off her black leather trench coat. For a moment she crouched, naked and defenseless on the rooftop. Then she sub vocalized a command to the complex, compact computer surgically implanted at the base of her spine. An electric blue glow began in the small of her back, and spread out among more than 100 meters of superconducting wires inserted strategically beneath her skin.
It was over in a few seconds. When the glow faded, Valerie's petite figure was wrapped head to toe in sleek, skin-tight metal armor. Painted a dull grey so as not to reflect light in any given environment, the metal was strong enough to deflect bullets up to 20 millimeters, and hard enough to withstand focused laser and particle-beam fire. It was a steel and titanium alloy, light enough not to weigh the user down. It weighed less than 30 kilograms altogether. Each individual plate was reminiscent of the musculature beneath it, allowing almost full mobility. A narrow slit across the eyes gave visibility, and vertical slits over Valerie's mouth and nose allowed her to breathe comfortably.
"Emission successful," Val reported. Mack would be pleased that her ingenious invention had once again worked. Because metal is ever an efficient conductor of electricity, Dr. Mishuri had years ago devised a way to convert and store metallic alloys as computerized information. Every shape and contour of the armor was programmed into the small hard drive. It was designed for infantry as the perfect portable body armor, since its weight and size when deactivated were negligible.
"Acknowledged. Proceed." So Mack was nervous too, Val told herself. It was more understandable for her, of course. Val was taking the FLAP for its first real test, and though it showed no problems in the lab, they both knew the real world was very different, and less forgiving.
Val lifted her rifle, checking the setting and safety one again. "Cutting transmission now."
"Acknowledged," Mack repeated. In her lab, Val's vitals monitor went blank, followed by the visual relay and with a terse "So long," the radio went silent.
"Good luck, Valerie," Mariko said to the blank screens. "Don't come back dead."
Centering her crosshairs on the roof guard, Val squeezed the trigger. A purple packet of energy, about the size of a marble, streaked through the air to touch the target in the head. His body jerked, then went limp. Val held her breath for several seconds after that, making sure the guard did not fire his weapon in reflex. If he did, then all the security in the Blaine headquarters would know something was going on. And William Foster Blaine would soon find out that he was being observed...
But no report echoed across the streets, and the roof of the huge skyscraper was now totally unguarded. Val stood up, folded the stock of her rifle, and hid it in a nearby storage shed. The she reached into a pocket of her coat and pulled out her sidearm, attached the silencer and secured it at her hip.
"Now to see if this crazy thing works in the real world." Talking to herself, she knew, was pointless, but it helped ease the tension and feeling of isolation. Val's voice echoed eerily off the metal over face. She backed up some fifty meters across the roof, and muttered another command.
Two broad, laminar-flow wings that had been hanging down her back snapped up into place slightly above the horizontal, and a pair of teacup-shaped parabolic mirrors that were the heart of the Focused Laser Aerial Parabolas. They were widely spaced for balance, rotated independently of each other for directional control, and spun for stability. A concept more than a century old that Mariko had rediscovered less than a year ago, the mirrors were carefully designed parabolas that would focus laser energy onto a single point. All that intensity would superheat the air, causing it to expand and push against the mirrors themselves. Newton's third law guaranteed that whatever was attached to the mirrors would be accelerated in whatever direction the mirrors pointed.
The design had worked well in the lab, and the President and the very few congressmen and -women who knew about the project insisted that the FLAP be put into use immediately. But Val and Mack both knew that a laboratory environment and the real world were two very, very different concepts altogether.
Val took a deep breath and dropped into a sprinter's crouch, trying unsuccessfully to calm her nerves. If the FLAP didn't work, it would take less than a minute to fall to her death in the streets of New York.
"Que sera, sera," Val whispered. If she was going to die in the next 60 seconds, then postponing it would not change that. Val exploded into a flat sprint, dashing across the concrete and leapt off the edge, thinking as loudly as she could the mental command to activate the FLAP at full power. For a very long half-second, nothing seemed to happen. Then she heard the familiar hiss of expanding air, which was actually quieter than the whirring as the mirrors spun.
Val let the momentum from her jump add to her velocity, and then leveled off to fly almost silently through the twilight, gained altitude and touched down gently on the roof. It was the work of a few seconds to break through the electronic lock on the door, and Val stealthily made her way inside.
After thirty minutes of creeping silently along the hallways deep into the building- the otherwise metal on the soles of her feet were covered in thin rubber- Val reached the main computer room. It was another thirty anxious minutes to defeat the electronic keypad-the code was changed daily- and she slipped inside.
Val wanted to remove the armor covering her head. One major disadvantage of Mariko's brainchild was that metal reflects body heat quite easily, so Val was almost sweltering inside. But she couldn't take the risk of shedding hair or skin inside or that her face would be seen, so she had to keep herself covered.
She took two small connectors, fitting one end into the mainframe terminal, the other into the storage system at her lumbar vertebrae. She stared down at her watch, which doubled as a tiny display unit. It told her that it had begun downloading, and what percentage of the files had been downloaded. Now came another obstacle. The files she was downloading would take up nearly all of her storage space, making it impossible for Valerie to deactivate her armor.
They were 72 percent completed when Val heard footsteps outside the computer room. It was another of the guards making his rounds of the building. Quickly Val slipped behind the terminal, making it just as the guard punched a code into the door and opened it.
Val held her breath. The white spot of his flashlight scanned across the walls, shifting slightly here and there. The shadows shifted eerily, they all seemed to move in any direction but one that would help conceal her. The terminal's bulk was enough to block her from the guard's view, but if he saw the connectors trailing behind, he would take a closer look. As slowly and as silently as she could, Val right hand moved to her hip, closing around the handle. Just a little tug and the small clamps fastening it to her side would release. If she was quick enough, she should be able to shoot him before he even realized he was not alone. Val forced herself not to think of who the guard might be, of how much he was being paid and what family he might be supporting. Her arm tensed, ready to jerk her pistol free when the white glow of his flashlight suddenly vanished, and he left the room, the door swishing shut behind him.
Val managed not to sag in relief. Her display showed the download was a merciful 100 percent complete, and she disconnected herself from the main computer. Fighting the urge to hurry, she retraced her steps back up to the roof.
The guard she had shot was still out cold. She felt for a pulse. He was still very much alive and unharmed, albeit he would likely wake up with a massive headache. Val leapt off the roof, and again the FLAP worked exactly as designed. She landed on the roof she had vacated nearly two hours before, bundled up her trench in her arms and switched on her transmitter.
"Mission complete," she reported.
"Acknowledged, Val." The relief in Mack's voice was unmistakable. "Come on home."
Val gave a roger, shut off her radio, grabbed her rifle and lifted off once more into the air.
Twenty minutes later she let herself into the lab and living quarters set underneath what had once been known as the Chrysler Building. As she stepped inside, Mack immediately told her to sit down and plug herself in, so she could immediately begin decrypting the files. Val was only too happy to oblige, the sooner she dumped the file, the sooner she could get out of her armor. It took five blessedly short minutes.
"All right, I can let the computer start decoding everything," Mack said as soon as the transfer was finished. "Get on the table and get out of all that."
Val sat herself on the edge of the long table and ordered her armor back into storage. Her skin was flushed and slick underneath, her short hair matted with perspiration. As she stretched out naked on her stomach, Mack immediately went to get her friend some water. It didn't take a doctor to see that Val was dangerously close to dehydration.
While Valerie tried to relax, Mack took a small file reader and hooked it into Val's lower back. She examined each file one by one, searching for corrupted data while Val let herself cool down.
It was almost funny, Mariko thought as she scanned the files. She felt like a doctor- a medical doctor- examining a patient as she attended to her partner. At first, Val had felt awkward about lying there naked next to her. Even though her petite figure was as lean and fit as fifteen years of constant training could make it, and Valerie was not an unattractive woman. Not for the first time, Mariko felt a twinge of envy at what Val had been able to accomplish. One hand unconsciously touched the stumps of her legs that had to come off after the auto accident when she was only sixteen. It was a point of private shame that she never discussed. Mariko's lineage traced all the way back to Samurai in the 1500s, and nearly all of her ancestors and family had been soldiers of one sort of another, which she had also hoped to become. Her father had been a bombardier-navigator, and her mother a combat surgeon. Both had died instantly in the accident on a crowded street in Tokyo, almost twenty years ago.
But at least she had been able to design a revolutionary, if experimental, form of equipment for the modern soldier. The project's political backers had named it Samurai, which they thought was a tribute to Mariko's heritage. In light of its current, confidential uses, she didn't especially care for it. But more importantly, Valerie Walker, formerly of the USMC and (officially) the US Secret Service, had become like a sister, an older, tougher sister, during nearly two years of training, development and operation.
"Okay, it's done." She spoke more softly than she had hoped. And at that, Val knew that something was bothering her.
"Is everything all right?"
"Oh, yes." Mariko pretended to misunderstand the question. "All the files are clean, nothing corrupted or damaged." Mariko was also a terrible actress.
Val pretended not to notice. She excused herself and went to use the shower. Mack watched her walk away, admiring her confident- although somewhat tired- tread and the sensual lines of her smooth back and firm buttocks. She shook herself from looking. Mack had been finding herself admiring her partner's body more and more for no apparent reason.
"Cut it out, Mariko," she orally slapped herself and wheeled back to the main computer to view the progress on the Blaine files. She had always refused an electric model, insisting on getting around on her own power.
Forty-eight hours later, Dr. Mariko Mishuri and Special Agent Valerie Walker sat in the Oval Office while the President Anderson and her National Security Advisor examined the information.