new adult suspense

Free Fiction on the 14th: The Race Begins

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new adult suspense

THE RACE BEGINS
by M.L. Buchman
-a Dilya’s Dog Force story-

When the person you depend on most disappears, where do you begin the search?

Dilya Stevenson, nanny and dog sitter to the First Family, always trusts herself, her dog, and her mentor—first, second, and third. Everyone else stands outside that circle.

But when her retired-spymaster mentor disappears, Dilya and the First Dog can’t find her alone. To save the future, she must reconnect with her past.

 

1

Dilya tried to breathe but her mouthful of dog fur made it hard.

She didn’t care one bit and squeezed Zackie harder. The Sheltie, which looked like a knee-high, brown-and-white collie, wiggled in her arms, pressing into the hug. Tears wasn’t something she did, a couple times close but…no. Not since her parents had been gunned down in front of her, leaving her to survive in the high Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan as a child. Not even the day she’d found her new family.

“I’m going to miss you so much.”

Zackie made a happy noise in reply as if Dilya wasn’t about to rip out the dog’s heart by leaving. She’d been the official dog sitter for the First Family since they’d been the Second Family and brought a fresh-weaned puppy to DC.

Now she was leaving, and the truth was that Zackie wasn’t hers. The dog belonged to the President’s wife.

“Why are you going to miss her?”

Dilya startled and did her best to wipe her eyes on Zackie’s long fur. Air Force One was such a pain—there was no way to be alone on this plane. She’d come down to the lower cargo deck to walk Zackie as she often did on flights. This wasn’t a long flight, DC to the Tennessee family farm, but Zackie was a Sheltie and didn’t have a calm mode unless commanded to.

Then everything had caught up with her until she’d collapsed on the bottom step of the stairs and hauled Zackie into her lap. She should have moved out of the line of sight from the main deck. But now that she’d been caught, she couldn’t ignore First Lady Anne Darlington-Thomas.

Her catching breath might be masked by the engine’s roar, unbuffered by sound insulation at this level.

“I’m sorry,” she kept her voice under tight control as she looked up and opened her eyes wider so that the water of her near-tears was spread out across her eyeballs rather than squeezed out to trickle down. “I quit.”

The soft smile on Anne’s face fractured than disappeared. She nudged Dilya to the side and then sat on the step beside her. It wasn’t proper, but there was no use telling the First Lady that. She’d grown up on a Tennessee farm. Being from one of the leading farm families of the South had never stopped her from mucking out her horse’s stall.

“Well, it’s about time.”

Dilya had already known how this conversation would go—and this wasn’t it.

“Oh, we’ll miss you and never find a nanny like you.”

“Mirabella tries.” Dilya knew her dry tone could soak up the Potomac River but couldn’t quite mask the sarcasm.

“Yes, she is good,” the First Lady matched her tone for tone. “We needed her when you started college.”

“But not as good as me?”

“Three quarters at the most. Trust me. That’s the best anyone could ever be.” Anne’s humor crashed Dilya’s mood even further. She’d never been more than okay as a nanny despite her best efforts; there were too many enticing distractions. Conscientious? Sure. Even thought she had it down. Until she saw Mirabella playing with the toddlers; little-kid-awesome must be in her DNA.

“I’m sorry.”

Anne bumped her own shoulder against Dilya’s in a friendly fashion. She still wasn’t used to being two inches taller than the First Lady. That was simply…wrong.

“Wait! What did you mean it’s about time?”

“I wondered when you’d get back to that. Dilya, you were rescued by the Night Stalkers in Afghanistan when you were, perhaps, eleven?”

She shrugged. Dilya had never corrected anyone about their guesses of her age. She’d always pretended ignorance, as if a kid didn’t know their own age. The First and Second Kids both already knew they were free year ol’. When she’d been a war orphan recently rescued by the Night Stalkers, she’d found it an advantage to appear younger than her actual nine—young enough to be easily ignored and forgotten. But her rescuers hadn’t, they’d adopted her instead and become her second set of parents.

Now it was better for people to think her older. Normal girls didn’t graduate top ten at Georgetown University in three years with double majors before they were twenty. School had been the easy part. Living in—and paying attention to—everything around her at the White House, had taught her more than most of her poli-sci or international affairs professors knew themselves.

That had left her plenty of time to pursue Miss Watson’s extracurricular coursework. Her assignments had been far more challenging than anything a university could put together. Of course, what chance did a mere professor have when compared to one of America’s foremost spymasters.

“You came to the White House seven years ago at fourteen—” not yet twelve “—as nanny to the First Lady and soon after my dog sitter when I married the Vice President.”

Dilya nodded, the rest of that was accurate enough.

“You grew up taking care of our families. It’s time for you to go out and find your own life.”

“I will miss them.” Her glance up and forward included the First and Second families’ children currently napping in the President’s private cabin.

“But they’re only four and you can’t be a nanny the rest of your life,” Anne agreed.

“I wish I could be different. Somehow—”

“Not you,” Anne cut her off. “Mirabella could. She may be with us for years, but not you. I do have one question though.”

Dilya held Zackie tightly in her lap. There were two likely questions and she hated the answer to both. Can I have my dog back and—

“Why now?”

And Dilya felt the abyss open again.

This morning.

A bare room that hadn’t been bare in all her years at the White House.

Mechanical Room 043 in the White House Residence’s lowest subbasement had become the most reliable touchstone of her life, perhaps even more than her adoptive parents.

There lay the hidden secret at the core of the government. Beyond the non-descript steel door lay the most complete library of actual spy craft anywhere. An elegant sitting room hidden behind one of the tightly packed bookcases. And the master spy who had sat at its center, protecting the government that thought her long dead.

She hid her face once again in Zackie’s fur.

This morning she and Zackie had followed one of the many circuitous routes she’d developed to reach the Residence’s deepest level unobserved—only to find it bare. The steel door, that only ever unlocked the moment before her hand touched the handle, had stood ajar.

Inside…no desk. No shelves of books. The bookcases that had hidden the sitting room behind were swung wide. No brocade armchairs. No portrait wall displaying the greatest female spies of history. No sweet pea decorated tea set or Snoopy doghouse biscuit jar with treats for Zackie.

Dilya wondered if she’d hallucinated all her time here, or was now when it appeared to be a barren wasteland. She’d doubted until she saw Zackie cock her head plaintively at where the Snoopy jar had rested on a small rosewood table. The familiar rush of dishwasher water through the overhead pipes confirmed that at least something here hadn’t changed.

Swept clean.

She’d checked every corner, the top edges of the door and bookcases, the back edge of every shelf she could remove. Rubbed her hands raw across every surface seeking a coded message of some kind. In Dune, the Lady Jessica had found a secret message encoded by bumps on a plant leaf. No plants. She’d even scrounged up a blacklight to no avail. Inside the door frame, outside. Nothing.

Zackie, when given the command to seek, hadn’t managed more than two steps past the door of the room before losing the scent.

At a loss, they’d had to race upstairs by the most direct route and had barely caught the helo from the South Lawn to Andrews, committing the major sin—at least in the standing Marine Corps guardsman’s eyes—of boarding after the President.

Miss Watson was gone.

And to the best of her knowledge, no one at the White House knew she’d ever been there. Someone must, but she had no idea who. Actually, she knew four people who knew her. They’d met her through Dilya, but maybe they knew things about Miss Watson that she didn’t.

You need to exceed me, child—Miss Watson was the only one still allowed to call her that. Think in teams, not individuals. It is my one great failing, don’t let it be yours.

Were her old high school friends a team? No. But they’d been friends. A close-knit group of misfits, all exceptional in their own way. Lost one by one as they attended different colleges. In touch but nothing like they’d been.

Task One. Get away from the known. If someone had taken out Miss Watson, they’d watch every known path for repercussions and aftershocks.

She looked at Anne, her eyes now dry. The fear ran too deep for tears to flow against the pressure. The engines dropped in tone, the nose pitched down, and she could hear the pilot announcing the start of the descent.

“I’m sorry. It just has to be now.”

Anne’s look said that she’d have been better off making up a lie that they could both laugh off as obvious, but there wasn’t one in her. After studying her for a long minute—Dilya knew better than to turn away and prove she had secrets not even the First Lady could be trusted to know—Anne reached out to scritch Zackie’s ears.

The Sheltie lolled her head backward over Dilya’s arm and sighed happily.

And here came the second intolerable question.

“Have you seen the girls with Zackie’s litter?”

They were impossible to miss and, despite the inner churning of her current turmoil threatening to drown out Air Force One’s engines, it was equally impossible not to smile.

The First and Second Ladies had given birth only weeks apart, their girls were now four. And the former First Lady’s daughter was a terribly sophisticated seven. Whenever they were at the White House, all three girls melted into puddles of goo that were inseparable from the little fluffballs. At three months, the Sheltie puppies were not so little anymore.

“We’re going to give a puppy to each one,” Anne continued.

“And the fourth?” It would be a lot of work to train a puppy to Zackie’s level. Over the last seven years she’d had plenty of help from the Secret Service dog handlers and every military war dog handler Dilya could pin down. But it would be wonderful if she could have one of Zackie’s brood for—

“I think that I’ll keep it for myself. It would be a shame to separate them.”

Dilya nodded, keeping her face as passive as she’d done those first days when the Night Stalkers were trying to figure out what to do with the war orphan they’d rescued.

Anne scratched Zackie’s ears again. “She has ended up being far more your dog than mine or the President’s. You two take care of each other.”

Dilya could only gawk as Anne leaned forward to kiss Zackie on top of the snout and then herself on the temple.

Long gone before she could recover, Anne left behind only the light scent of her lovely honey-scented perfume.

 

2

The plane landed in Tri-Cities Airport, northeast Tennessee. A regional airport barely big enough to deserve the name, but it could handle the big jet and lay less than twenty miles from the Darlington family farm.

She faded from the exodus by laying low and deplaning along with the baggage handlers into the hot summer afternoon—her stomach still too scrunched to take advantage of lunch on the hour-long hop from DC. Anne’s smile and her hand pressed against the window of the Marine One helicopter were the only signs that anyone had missed her from the typical entourage headed to the farm.

After moving far enough away from Air Force One for her phone to drop the plane’s wireless network and hook up to a local cell tower, she placed the call she hadn’t dared try on-board where everything was monitored. A random cell call? Not so much.

Still, she pulled up a VPN and chose an end-to-end encrypted app as a precaution.

Major Emily Beale, supposedly retired, answered on the second ring. “Dilya! How are you?” She sounded pleased. Dilya had never gotten used to the idea that such an amazing person could be one of her friends. The first female Special Operations helicopter pilot for the 160th Night Stalkers—so good they couldn’t keep her out. And that was before she’d been awarded numerous medals, fought wildfires, or now working for Miss Watson. Dilya also liked it that Miss Watson called Emily my child as well.

“I’m okay.”

“I see. What’s going on?” One of the problems with Emily was that Dilya had never been able to hide anything from her—ever. On the other hand, being the ultimate female warrior, Emily always plunged straight into the business at hand without wasting time, which was a relief. There was a brief rattle of keys, “And where are you?”

Dilya ignored the second question, she’d long since disabled all location services on this device. She didn’t know if even Emily could break through to find out where she actually was, not that it mattered—yet.

“Have you spoken with our friend lately?”

“Hmmm… That narrows it down not in the slightest.” Which was true. But not.

Our friend,” Dilya prompted. My parents were Emily’s friends but she would have called them that. Your friend might include the former President turned Secretary of State because they’d grown up as neighbors, or perhaps Michael Gibson since he’d retired from commanding Delta Force. Our friend, combined with the fact that she hadn’t said a name outright, would be Secret Service Agent Frank Adams or…

“Oh. No, I haven’t. Not for several weeks.”

Dilya had seen Miss Watson four days ago. She wished there was a wall to lean against for support and her stomach convinced her that skipping lunch had been the right choice. She scanned around to make sure that no one but Zackie lurked nearby. They were alone on the tarmac, at the edge of the security perimeter that now encircled the 747.

Emily waited.

“The room is empty,” Dilya kept it simple.

“Empty?” Not in doubt but as if the word was blown out of her.

“Nothing. I checked every surface.” She hoped Emily could keep following her meaning.

“Hold please,” her tone now almost mechanical. But she didn’t mute her phone.

Dilya could hear it thunk down on the desk, followed by the harsh rattle of computer keys. Then a brief squeal followed by a ringing that indicated a military-grade encrypted phone. More key rattle.

It was three full minutes before Emily came back on. “I’m going to send Michael to you. He—”

“No. He leaves too big a wake.”

Emily laughed. “You don’t know Michael then.”

Your friend, Colonel Michael Gibson, had been Delta Force’s most skilled warrior, might still be even though he’d retired. But if someone had removed Miss Watson, they would be expecting such a player to surface and be watching for him.

Emily and Michael had been the first step along the action-team chain from Miss Watson.

They’d know little or nothing about the intelligence gathering arm, which was Dilya’s specialty, mostly—partly anyway. Dilya didn’t know what she was anymore.

Or the political arm.

Or… Dilya wondered how much else she didn’t know about.

She kept her silence, letting Emily figure it out.

There was a long pause before Emily admitted defeat with a soft sigh.

“What are you thinking?” She’d have figured out why not to send Michael almost immediately, spending the rest of the silence cranking through successively less useful alternatives exactly as Dilya had.

Maybe not exactly.

One thing that Michael and her adoptive mom had taught her, never come at a problem head-on. Emily was a Spec Ops warrior. She and Dad had gone through West Point then flown together. They couldn’t help that. Delta Force had trained Michael to come at problems sideways.

Kee had grown up on the streets of East LA and was now a top sniper for the Hostage Rescue Team—Mom could do anything. Except she didn’t know about Miss Watson. It was beyond weird to think that she, Dilya, could do something neither Emily nor Kee could.

“I need to get moving.”

“Be—” Emily caught herself before saying careful. She knew Dilya would be better at that than even she herself would in this type of situation. After all, Dilya had been trained by both the Night Stalkers warriors and a top spymaster. “—in touch.”

“Okay.” Dilya hung up.

Unless something went truly sideways, that wasn’t going to happen until this was resolved. Once Emily figured out that truth, Dilya hoped that it wouldn’t make her too angry.

 

3

Northeastern Tennessee. Her traveling backpack and—her dog! She knelt to give Zackie another big hug. The gesture earned her a happy sigh from the depths of the Sheltie’s nap on the warm tarmac—she was a complete heat-glutton despite her thick fur.

Never in a thousand dog years had Dilya expected such a gift. Anne Darlington-Thomas was the best person ever. Or…kinda. In the same top-tier category as Mom and Emily anyway. Someday she’d find a way to pay that back, even if it was only working to keep the First Lady safe without her knowledge.

Dilya straightened.

First task? Think!

Yes, Miss Watson.

She’d gathered her initial data: empty room, and the fact that Emily didn’t know. That also meant that Lauren and Michael didn’t know either as they also lived on and worked from Henderson’s Ranch in Montana. Others had traveled through the covert sub-basement domain, but only briefly as far as Dilya knew. Three Secret Service dog handlers, the White House chocolate chef, and the driver of the Presidential limo. But only Dilya had remained attached to her across all of the last eight years—at least as far as she knew.

But what did she know? Actually know? Had Miss Watson hidden other on-going relations?

Surely. But over the last four years, Dilya had come to know more and more about what passed across Miss Watson’s desk and had heard only the least of hints about other people.

One of Air Force One’s stray Secret Service agents strolled over. “Hey, Dilya. Miss the Marine One flight to the ranch? You can hop in with the luggage.” He waved a hand toward a pair of black Suburban SUV’s with tinted glass.

So much for departing unnoticed.

The main motorcade had left as soon as the helos were airborne and would soon be occupying the lower barn on the Darlington Farm—out of sight and instantly ready.

“No, I’m good thanks.”

He eyed her, the baggage vehicles, then her again. Finally he shrugged and moved on with a wave.

Almost anonymous.

Now that she’d stopped long enough to think, her next move—other than getting out of the known paths—was obvious.

She snapped her fingers.

Zackie popped up from her nap and trotted along beside her.

 

4

Kimberlee Walker puzzled at the message, Miss Baker, from an unlisted number.

She knew who that was, of course. Even if Miss Baker wasn’t buried less than a hundred meters from where she was standing, Kimberlee couldn’t be her father’s daughter and not know. Like his pa before him, Senator Jerome Walker had been deeply involved in the US space program before, unlike Grandpa, turning to politics.

The Marshall Space Flight Center had loomed so large in her childhood that it still mystified her when people didn’t know that NASA’s largest center wasn’t Houston, Canaveral, or Vandenberg—but here in Huntsville, Alabama.

And for the visitors? The US Space and Rocket Center: combined museum, astronautics adventure park, and the home of Space Camp. Her summer job through high school hadn’t been barista or grocery clerk, it had been working with SC kids on engineering skills and space-training experiences. She could stabilize the multi-axis spin simulator faster than any kid yet because she’d been doing it since she could fit in the chair.

Dad wanted her to go to space. She’d always assumed that an astronaut application was in her future.

Now, she didn’t know. She’d thought it was gone but all of a sudden it wasn’t, which meant—

Miss Baker, her phone reminded her.

I’m busy, she texted back.

Miss Baker!

Crap! She and Dad stood at the hub of mayhem, thankfully in the only decent shade from the brutal mid-day sun. The Pathfinder space shuttle—complete with the big orange tank and the two-side boosters—was the only full shuttle stack assembled anywhere. It anchored this end of the US Space and Rocket Center and cast a big shadow.

Today it also anchored HERC, the Human Exploration Rover Challenge. Two-person human-powered rovers were being prepared for an obstacle course by twenty-three high school and university teams. Dad was one of the official judges—along with a bunch of NASA scientists and astronauts. She was his assistant.

Miss Baker! The reminder echoed.

“Daddy, I’ve got to go see about something.”

Senator Jerome Walker gave her one of those looks he wielded on the floor of the US Senate like a missile punching through sun-softened butter. “Pee fast and get back here. This is your campaign stop, not mine.”

Kimberlee figured that assumption was easier than explaining anonymous messages and sprinted away. Besides, she needed to get away from the chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office who’d just asked why she hadn’t submitted an application.

She’d decided to follow her father into politics. It made more sense, didn’t it? From the government, she could fight to keep NASA funded. She couldn’t do that from space.

All of the doubts were sending her stumbling about like her guidance system was on the fritz during liftoff. Hopefully no one was about to punch her abort-destruct button.

She raced around the corner of the main Space Camp building, the closest bathrooms, then hid and peeked back.

Even the campaign newsies hadn’t followed her once they saw where she was headed. Dad’s next reelection wasn’t for two years. Her first election was in a couple months and she was doing well in the polls.

Mama had said start small, councilwoman for Huntsville. Deciding that she didn’t have time to start small, Kimberlee was running for a vacated seat in the Alabama House of Representatives—she was still three years too young to be a senator. After kicking serious behinds in the primary, November was her focus, and the Rover Challenge was a campaign stop.

But the text message had been strange enough to get her attention.

Actually, it had been an excuse to get away from Senator Jerome Walker and NASA’s chief astronaut, before they pulled her in two.

Ducking out through the security gate, with a wave for a guard she recognized but couldn’t remember his name—she needed to work on that—she cut through the trees toward Miss Baker’s grave.

It was a tall, slender gravestone for the first primate to survive a space flight. The small squirrel monkey and her companion Miss Able had rocketed up three hundred and sixty miles and survived the return. Up until then, the majority of test animals died in exploded rockets, failed reentries, or in capsules lost at sea. Able had died only days later during surgery to remove an infected electrode, but Miss Baker had become a national celebrity and gone on to become the longest-lived squirrel monkey on record by the time she died at twenty-seven.

Kimberlee was glad to see that there were a goodly number of bananas propped on the narrow top of the gravestone. Tourists often left them, but Kimberlee had always made sure that a couple were in place before each Space Camp group’s arrival tour.

A figure stood there with her back to Kimberlee, facing the tall gravestone. Even if Kimberlee hadn’t recognized her, there was no doubting who it was, not with the brown-and-white Sheltie dog carefully inspecting the gravestone as well.

“Dilya!” Kimberlee threw herself into a welcoming hug. Dilya’s natural reserve had never survived one of Kimberlee’s onslaughts and crumbled this time as well. “God, haven’t seen you in forever and a nine-tenths more.”

They’d gone to school on opposite coasts. Claremont McKenna had headhunted her straight out of the captaincy of their nationally ranked high school debate team. They’d only seen each other in person a few times over the last three years.

She held Dilya out at arm’s length to inspect her for a moment, then dragged her back into a hug, which earned her one of Dilya’s rare laughs.

“Hurry, tell me everything. No, better yet, come with me and tell me everything.” Kimberlee tried to lead her away from the gravestone.

“Have you had any contact with Miss Watson?”

That stopped her in her tracks. Miss Watson wasn’t the sort of person to be discussed around other people.

She noted the circles under Dilya’s eyes, showing despite skin as medium-dark as her own, though a very distinct Uzbekistani hue rather than her own African American-Scottish-Italian mix. Her clothes were showing too many hours of travel and there was a dusty travel pack sitting on a nearby park bench.

“What happened?”

“She’s gone.”

“Where?”

Dilya used silence like a Saturn V rocket used a million pounds of thrust—it cut straight to the essentials.

“Well, ain’t that a pickle now.”

Dilya still didn’t speak.

“Last time I had any contact was graduation. She sent me a small library of Presidential debates and commentaries—only not so small. Three of them were signed by the Presidents themselves…‘to MW.’ I’m guessing that’s Miss Watson. I mean, I just can’t believe she’d give me those.”

“I never saw those in her library,” Dilya squinted down at Zackie as if her dog knew. He gave a dog shake. Please let it be just a dog shake. The First Sheltie was smart, but not that smart, right?

“They’re in mine now and I’m not giving them back. That’s what convinced me to change tracks. I was headed,” she pointed at the sky, “and now I’m running to be a state representative. Look, I have to get back. Come with me and we can talk tonight.”

Dilya looked over her shoulder as if something urgent was calling her there. Her friend also looked exhausted in ways that had nothing to do with sleep.

She slung on Dilya’s pack herself—which wasn’t as heavy as it looked—grabbed her friend’s hand and headed back without giving her any choice. Subject change. Dilya was fast, but subject changes at the speed a McKenna Debate Union captain could manage still threw her friend.

“How much do you know about space rovers?”

Dilya stumbled along in her wake and Zackie followed.

 

5

She should have been paying attention, but she’d never been here and there was so much to see. Dilya gawked like any tourist who’d entered a park too close to closing. Everything was a blur, gone before she could really focus on it.

A distant cheer sounded as if there was a crowd somewhere.

By the front entrance, an A-12 Oxcart, the spy plane that had become the SR-71 Blackbird. The strange plane that looked as if it had been flattened until all that was left was a hundred and seven feet of blackness and sharp edges. It had flown above the Soviet Union at several times the speed of sound taking incredible photos.

Around the corner stood an entire Saturn V rocket resting on its tailfins. Going to the moon? Hop on! it beckoned.

The source of a round of groans were now visible. It wasn’t a big crowd, but it was an involved one, close together in a winding line of some sort. Two lines, either side of a paved walkway.

That was the first place she was nearly run over.

A gangly contraption came racing at them from around the base of the rocket. Two people were aboard and pedaling fiercely. That sat back-to-back on a four-wheeled…thing that was half bicycle and half lunar rover. The wheels were mechanically articulated in strange ways that appeared to flex and bend as the rover passed by. There was almost nothing to it: four wheels, two axles flexing from a central shaft, and the two seats.

Kimberlee had stopped her in time to avoid bodily harm. The racecourse was marked off by yellow rope line strung along the tops of orange traffic cones. Strategic bales of hay had been placed at corners.

But this vehicle was in pain. Two of the flexy-wheels had flexed in ways that they couldn’t recover from. But that didn’t stop the two riders. Instead they fought it along the course as it veered and skittered through the lane as much sideways as forward.

“Go rovernauts! Go! Go! Go!” Kimberlee shouted encouragement as she dodged a particularly bad veer toward the ropes. Others lining the course added their shouts as heartily.

Once they were clear, Kimberlee glanced left but veered right, dodging through the back fringes of the crowd.

“I’m supposed to be over there, but you simply haveta see this. Look, it’s a LEM Lunar Lander in the middle of a cratered field.”

The LEM wasn’t the quality of the one at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum but it was meant to be a model. The one in DC had been slated to go to space.

And there was the next contestant, battling their way in and out of the dirt craters. Kimberlee stopped at a good vantage point.

“Each school team builds their own machine from scratch. Like they can buy the wheel hubs but have to design and manufacture their own wheels. Each rover must fold up to smaller than a five-foot cube. And you get the most points if it’s less than a hundred and thirty pounds and you can unfold and assemble it in under thirty seconds. Then they have to survive fourteen obstacles. There are five sample-retrieval science tasks, too. Tough ones they had to design tools to beat.”

From here Dilya could see several of them, each punctuated by a Kimberlee Kommentary, called Kay-Kays within the group. In high school, she was the one who always had a cool factoid or story about everything, from all of her debate club research.

A big hump to climb and descend had been built across the normal walkway that was now a racecourse. “A lot tougher than it looks. It’s a matter of gearing to go fast on the flat but have a low enough gear to climb that.”

A six-inch wide pipe sticking up from the ground to well over the rovernauts heads. “They have to retrieve two hundred mils of water out the top without getting out of their seats.”

The narrow pit of head-sized boulders didn’t need any explanation. Nor did the sloshy area of deep pea gravel.

A pit with ten small fountains. “See that winding path through them? A serious steering test as you can’t touch any of the ice geysers.”

“The moon has ice geysers?” Dilya’s head felt like it was plowing through mud, super-thick, extra-icy mud.

“No. Duh! But Europa might. NASA is always looking to get new ideas from us kids. They hire the good ones, too, which is very cool. Okay, I can’t stay away any longer. C’mon.”

Then they were hying off in another direction. Kimberlee led them through a cluster of historical rockets planted like oversized sunflowers, far too tall for how big around they measured. A rover came racing down the straightaway, slowed abruptly, then crawled along a curved ramp that threatened to tip the rovernauts over sideways as if they were rounding the brow of a hill.

Kimberlee skidded to a halt. She never moved slowly. “Hi, Daddy. You remember Dilya Stevens from the high school Chef’s Club?”

He opened his mouth, clearly ready to say something quite different, and closed it again. Jerome Walker put on his best US Senator face and held out a hand.

“Hello again, Ms. Stevens. How are things at the White House?” proving there was nothing wrong with his memory.

“They’re—” and that’s when she heard it. The fast snick-snick-snick of cameras. News cameras always sounded different because they never shot a single image. Every shutter release took ten or more shots, so the best could be chosen later.

Snick-snick-snick as they cut out pieces of her soul. She’d learned outer poise before the camera from two successive First Ladies, yet inside she reviled them with a deep harbored hatred.

And today of all days?

Doing a crap job of disappearing, Dilya. She could almost hear Miss Watson laughing that she’d walked into such a trap.

Too busy looking elsewhere, child. Keep your eyes and wits open.

Time to make the best of the situation.

“They’re fine, Senator Walker. The First Lady has decided to give Zackie’s puppies to each of the White House children. You can’t imagine how happy that makes them.”

The Senator offered her another of his smiles, recognizing a good sound bite when he heard one. “Oh, I can, Ms. Stevens. I’ve had the good fortune to own a couple of fine animals myself. Spaniels, good hunting and retrieving stock. Can’t imagine a Sheltie hunts much?”

Pricked at the challenge, she almost stated that Zackie had been trained to be expert at tracking people and helping her track information. She caught herself in time and put on her best smile to match the Senator’s. She pulled Kimberlee into the shot.

“You know, Kimberlee. Zackie is an absolute expert at…”

Kimberlee laughed at the memory, “…at hunting treats and naps.” It’s what everyone who didn’t know better thought of Zackie. Other than a few dog trainers and her friends, that’s what everyone thought.

Snick-snick-snick. It was a good moment. Highly photogenic. And Dilya had managed to tug Kimberlee into a primary blocking position. With her own hair shaken forward enough to mask her eyes to that side, little would show except her own smile.

Attention turned back to the rover challenge in stages.

First the others who’d been listening in, then the reporters, and finally the Senator until once again it was only herself and Kimberlee.

“What’s going on?”

Kimberlee tapped the button pinned above her left breast: Walker for Rep.

“So?”

“I’m campaigning. Expand that to Kimberlee Walker for Alabama Representative and you’d be getting a might warmer. Also it’s my motto, For Real Representation. I’m gonna ride the youth vote straight into office.”

 

6

The gears ground in Dilya’s head. It was one too many changes in the same day.

Miss Watson gone.

Out of a job and, she only realized belatedly, a place to live. There was always Mom and Dad’s, but the White House had been her home for almost every night of eight years.

Rootless. Not as rootless as she’d been while starving and freezing high in the Hindu Kush, but not anchored either.

Now Kimberlee, whose help she needed, stood solidly poised on her life’s next step. Thinking back, Kimberlee had said she was running, but it hadn’t seemed more whimsical than real. Dilya knew she was going to be an astronaut. Everybody knew that.

But there had been that conversation.

State senate worked out for Obama.

Dilya had agreed and they’d talked about the steps he’d taken, and which would and wouldn’t work for Kimberlee. But they’d still been college juniors at the time, and it all felt academic. Not so much.

Dilya managed to stay in the background. Only one reporter had been on the ball enough to try for a follow-up interview with her. She was too old a hand to reveal anything important yet gave the impression that the reporter alone in the whole world had her exclusive view of life at the White House.

Give them the social tidbits and only the best will notice that you never said anything. Again, Miss Watson was right.

Rover after rover left and returned. Most made it to the finish within the eight-minute time limit. Those who couldn’t were sent on, but required to use the bypass route at each remaining obstacle and received no more points.

Yet without fail, each who crossed the line—even the two who were towing their rover by the front axle with the broken front wheels in the passenger seats—were welcomed to the finish as heroes. They might collapse from the strain of the run, but not until they crossed the finish.

Each and every time, she was reminded of Miss Watson’s instruction.

Think in teams, not individuals. It is my one great failing, don’t let it be yours.

Dilya watched Kimberlee helping a team across the line who’d clearly suffered a bad rollover out on the course. They were scraped and bloody, an angry rash on one’s arm and the other with a bad limp. But they were smiling.

As were the photographers who were following with their big lenses.

Dilya needed to build a team.

Kimberlee cheered up the battered team exactly as she always had for their circle all of the way back in high school.

Or did Dilya already have a team?

 

7

“No message or anything?” Kimberlee dropped some peanuts into her Dr. Pepper and listened to the merry fizz inside the can. The glass case surrounding the Apollo 16 capsule felt cool against her back after the long day in the sun.

The park had emptied with the end of the competition. Tomorrow they’d be back for award ceremonies and a big party. For now, she and Dilya had retreated into the closed Saturn V Museum while the groundskeepers disassembled the course. The vast hall, normally filled with hundreds, echoed with only the two of them and a dog, parking their butts on the floor at the farthest end.

Dilya chose to eat her peanuts rather than drink them. “Nothing. There four days ago, then gone as if she’d never been.”

“Can’t you ask—”

Who?” Dilya voice rose in frustration. It sounded like a slap in the cavernous Saturn V Hall. The rocket had reigned as the tallest and most powerful ever built for over fifty years. This one was made of test modules and mockups. Parts hung from the ceiling with the big first and second stages resting in steel cradles, all in a line—longer than a football field, end zones too.

Kimberlee really hadn’t had that much to do with Miss Watson. Or didn’t think she had. Instead it was…

“Hey!”

“What?” Dilya tossed a couple peanuts to Zackie who caught them in the air. She made a whole spectacle of crunching and chewing each nut that was fun to watch.

“All that stuff you said to me.”

“What stuff?”

“Like when I was choosing colleges and courses. You always had all this advice. Was that you or her?”

Dilya stared a little too fixedly at the Lunar Excursion Module for landing on the Moon. This was a good model, far better than the mockup at the center of the lunar crater pit outside.

“Dil-ya…”

“It was good advice, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you’re avoiding the question.”

Dilya shook her head. “I honestly don’t know. She can plant an idea in your head without you even knowing it. Like the Inception movie only for real. She was so stealth—and I miss her so much.”

Her Dr. Pepper forgotten, Dilya pulled her legs up to her chest and buried her face against her knees. Zackie curled up on the toes of Dilya’s shoes.

Kimberlee pulled her into a hug but didn’t know what else to do. Seeing Dilya go fetal was a new one. Curled up tighter than an armadillo.

Dilya had always been the strong one.

The Chef’s Club had been a cockamamie idea Valentina had cooked up, almost literally. The tall, blonde valedictorian was the perfect girl of high school, complete with the lovely accent inherited from her mother and father, the Defense Attaché at the French Embassy in DC. Tired of all of the peer-thinking from the girls who had clustered about her, Valentina had struck out.

She recruited three others as uncomfortable with in-the-box thinkers as herself. Then she’d come up with an out-of-the-box idea to make them think differently. Every month they’d reached out to a new restaurant and asked to spend a weekend shadowing the kitchen chefs. Even Trevor, the only one of them who could really cook was amazed at what they learned. It wasn’t only food; it was class and culture and personal histories of places they couldn’t have found in DC. But they did.

The Chef’s Club. The secret society of dissatisfied misfits.

Until they’d talked their way into the White House kitchen and met Dilya. A Uzbekistani war orphan, adopted by a Special Operations Forces helicopter team. A resident of the White House itself, who traveled all over the world with the First Family, with successive First Families. She was even the protégé of a secret spy hidden in the basement, which was beyond cool.

They’d inducted her that weekend and formed a new clique at school.

Kimberlee held Dilya tighter.

Valentina had remained the leader, she herself was the voice. Trevor was the steadfast one and Jimmy the nerd. But Dilya had been their strength. They’d gathered together in the lunchroom and the outings to various restaurant kitchens. But over the years they’d spent far more time discussing, debating, and breaking down any idea that came to hand.

Kimberlee still missed it. Five high school kids convinced they could fix the world if they just thought about it hard enough. Politics, food supply, energy distribution, one of Trevor’s recipes. It didn’t matter what, they chased it.

Dilya had begun slipping some of their ideas into the Oval Office, much as Kimberlee had slid a few into her own father’s ear. Senator Jerome Walker had proposed more than one bill with Chef’s Club ideas in it, brought up over dinner and dropped into a conversation.

But Miss Watson?

How was she supposed to help Dilya find Miss Watson? Leave her campaign? The numbers said that she was polling solidly—very solidly, though she was keeping her hopes in check.

Her hopes.

How had Miss Watson known to give her a complete library of Presidential debates? They’d become her recreational reading. Recreational? Ha! She’d consumed them, could quote whole passages of Lincoln-Douglas, Kennedy-Nixon, right up to the madness of more recent contests.

Somehow Miss Watson had known of her most secret desire, to sit behind the Roosevelt Desk in Oval Office as President one day.

That day of the interview. Four years ago and it still stood out as a shining moment in her life.

Dilya had convinced the President to let them ask him questions for a full thirty minutes, right there in the Oval. Whose idea had it been to let her sit in the chair? Had she asked? Was it Dilya or Miss Watson somehow suggesting to Dilya to set that up? That brief moment felt so real that, even sitting here on the hard floor with her back against the Apollo display case, she knew that was the reality she wanted.

Only because it had been a childhood dream could Kimberlee be sure that Miss Watson hadn’t actually planted that idea in her head as well.

And once more she was back to the books Miss Watson had given her. She was a librarian. A librarian of the most comprehensive library of spy craft perhaps anywhere—she certainly had several pithy observations to make about quality of the CIA’s own, much larger library.

“Her library.”

Dilya didn’t respond.

Kimberlee shook her. Shook her hard enough that Zackie growled at her.

“Shush!” she said to the dog. “Snap out of it, Dilya,” she said to her friend. “The library.”

Only after she accidentally shook Dilya hard enough to bang her head on the glass and glare at her did she stop.

“Think. Her library. Where did it go?”

“Gone. With her.”

“Ding!” Kimberlee wanted to shout, but it was hard to shout such a silly word with appropriate sarcasm.

Dilya and her dog looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“With her. Did she ever not have a plan in place? Did she ever not know who was coming there to her office? Nobody could get that library out of there, except her. Even if they did, the teapot? The Snoopy dog biscuit jar? Where did that collection go?”

 

8

Slapping her hands to her mouth didn’t muffle the yelp that shot from her mouth to echo down the entire length of the Saturn V rocket.

A moment ago, Dilya had lost her mother all over again. The ridiculously small sound of the Makarov PMM pistol that had punched such a small hole through father’s and then mother’s foreheads, ringing once more in her ears until it was the only sound in the world. Only in nightmares had she ever returned to that high mountain valley to watch the two men kill her parents.

It was weird, she didn’t know the murderers’ names. Her adoptive mother did, for she had killed them in turn to stop a war, but it wasn’t the sort of thing she’d ever dared ask about. It was a closed chapter best left behind them.

But Kimberlee was right, and she’d never seen it.

“So, she’s out there still, somewhere,” Kimberlee sounded as confident about that as she did about almost everything. No wonder she was polling so high, she spoke honesty from the heart.

“In trouble,” Dilya began piecing it together. “But out of the White House by her own choice. But why leave no clue for me?”

“Maybe she knew they were coming for her and didn’t want to chance it. Maybe because she knew you’d figure it out on your own.”

Dilya looked at her friend, “But I didn’t. You did.”

“Hey, what are friends for?”

Sun Tzu’s maxim, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ A haughty Miss Watson sniff of disdain. Utter hogwash, child. Nothing is more powerful than a group of friends working toward a common goal.

 

9

Dilya was gone when Kimberlee awoke.

They’d talked most of the night. Some of it about old times, some of it about their friends from Chef’s Club and where they were now. A lot about Kimberlee’s possible routes to national office.

Kimberlee had remembered that she’d once seen Trevor having tea, no one drank anything else around Miss Watson, with her. It had been in a small cafe-bookstore close by the Hay-Adams Hotel where his mother was head chef.

It had been late when she’d tossed off the memory, thinking nothing more of it.

Not until Kimberlee found the note tucked inside her pajama pocket.

Off for some T. I’ll vote for you. D.

Kimberlee rubbed her thumb across the note. It was silly, but she could feel Dilya there in the letters.

She was going to find Trevor and discuss his teatime with Miss Watson. Off to gather the next piece of the chain to lead her to Miss Watson.

Then Kimberlee read the note once more and began to laugh.

Dilya was a legal resident of Washington, DC. She couldn’t vote for Kimberlee to enter the Alabama House any more than she could for the US Senate.

But she could certainly vote for her as President.

“Well,” Kimberlee tucked the note away where she’d never lose it, “that’s one vote. Only eighty million or so to go.”

Her course now lay clear before her. She wondered how long until Dilya’s did.

Copyright © 2022 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2022 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

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