“Explosion in ground floor dining area!” one of the monitor operators announced. “Repeat, explosion in ground floor dining area!”
Several of the screens switched to show views of the cafeteria area. There were people–or bodies–on the ground. The blast seemed to have happened behind the counter. There was a big grisly looking splatter on the rear wall, and whatever was left of the cashier was out of sight.
“Evacuate the areas adjacent to the lobby,” the security chief said into his console. “Medical teams to the cafeteria. Move everybody out of the galleries and into secure areas. Secure the elevators and lock down the floors.”
He pushed a button, and a soothing baritone voice sounded throughout the National Palace, audible in the operations room through the monitors.
“Ladies, gentlemen, et al, the National Palace begs your indulgence during this brief state of emergency…”
“Galleries and halls are clear,” a monitor watcher reported, and all the screens that weren’t showing the disaster site now showed crowds of frightened and/or irritated people being served coffee by docents with nervous grins.
“It was that damned one-eyed jackass with the crotch bomb,” Selmar said. “Are that… is that… that cloned person, is he still here?”
“Looks like all of Nicholas Bradley has left,” the security chief reported. “Do you want us to find him?”
“No, I want to find Bard,” Selmar said. “I want her tracked.”
“Public Safety, we need an A.P.B. on suspect Designate Regan Bard, human physical profile #3A45F3,” the security chief said into his console. “Damn, I mean 2. #3A45F2.” He looked around the room for confirmation. “Right?”
“Wait, which is it? 3 or 2?” the voice of a safety officer asked.
“It was 3,” Selmar said. “Left eye!”
“Wait, #3A45F3 is a black patch over the right eye,” the chief said.
“I meant she still has a left eye,” Selmar said. “It’s #3A45F3.”
“It’s #3A45F3,” the security chief relayed into the console.
“Roger,” the safety officer said.
“Be advised that the suspect is incredibly armed,” Selmar said, stepping over the console.
“It’s Rylea,” the safety officer’s voice said. “Everybody is.”
“Not like her,” Selmar said. “She’s also, er, diplomatically connected. We just need her traced… no confrontation, no arrest. Don’t let any ship leave the asteroid with her on board.”
“Sir, you, um, might want to see this,” one of the monitor watchers said.
On the screens showing the cafeteria, emergency personnel were helping stunned and shellshocked patrons to their feet. Behind the counter, the cashier was also amazingly getting to her feet. She appeared to be mostly unhurt.
“What the devil?” Selmar asked, watching in disbelief. “What’s that on the wall, then?”
The security chief relayed a few quiet commands. On the screens, a security guard went over and made a brief inspection of the wall and spoke to the cashier.
“Soup, coffee, assorted other garbage,” the chief reported. “Remember how our, uh, suspect had a defective soup tin before she left?”
“Defective… I wonder. Well, cancel the A.P.B. on Bard,” Selmar said. “No, keep it. No… damn it! Keep it for now. Restore normal status to the museum. We’ve disrupted business long enough.”
“It’s a five minute cycle to reverse the lockdown,” the security chief said, punching buttons on his console.
“Do you think I don’t know that?” Selmar asked.
“Well, yeah,” the chief said. “But just in case, you know, anybody didn’t know.”
“Just get it done,” Selmar said.
Suspended on a line from the ceiling of the empty Contemporary Masters Gallery, Handy went to work with the microtools Nick had passed to her. After a lifetime of performing exacting work under extremely hazardous conditions, five minutes was more than she needed to disable the security field in front of the Donna Stella, the crown jewel of the National Palace’s collection.
The famed painting of the dark-haired woman with the starry smile was five hundred years old, and had been commissioned at a time when interstellar travel had been slower and more expensive. Instead of the more traditional velvet which was enjoying a renaissance, the Donna had been painted using molecular bonding techniques on a synthetic stretch canvas. When freed from its backing, the six hundred and thirty square inch painting collapsed to the size of an ancient postage stamp.
Handy secured this in the pouch around her neck, then fished around briefly. With a minute to go, her hand pulled out a tiny square just like the one she had removed from the wall. Her four arms quickly had it stretched out to its full size.
When the gallery re-opened, everything was just as it had been and Handy was long gone, heading for her rendezvous with Leo in an empty elevator.
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