A/N: This is the last of my Lyon & Ryland fics that I posted at PSOWorld; it's also last in the sequence so you'll probably want to have read "Year of the Rappy"; "Trick or Treat"; and "Heartwired" before this one. Or maybe not, since there's not really any continuing plot, just recurring episodic characters.

For those who may not remember, "beat time" is the timekeeping system used in PSO, supposedly for purposes of helping players in different time zones coordinate play. An idea poorly executed...but it does work for giving that "alien culture" feel to the ship when the characters use it. In any case, there are 1000 beats in a 24-hour day, so that each beat is 1.44 minutes long (86.4 seconds).

March, AUW 3086

The uniformed man descended from the aerovan, checking his appearance in the polished chrome side before doing anything else. The van's seat tended to crumple up the long tails of his green coat, and he liked to present a positive, professional appearance. That done, he got out a package, sealed like all of them in the company's green and white box, and checked the coding against the address data. Yep, right package. Dennys Coyle rarely made mistakes in his six-year career with Diamond Drive Deliveries, and none at all since he'd come aboard the colony spaceship Pioneer 2. A closed environment with a limited population, carefully monitored, was a cakewalk for a veteran like him.

Coyle took a warp platform from the parking dock to the residence building, arriving in a large atrium with a domed ceiling of hexagonal panels displaying a sky scene, banks of ornamental trees in the far corners, and a fountain splashing in the room's center. Nice, he thought. Someone's doing well for themselves. He crossed the atrium to the elevator, where a security panel advised him to halt. He identified himself and the computer checked his data and the package code against what the company had already sent over. Everything appeared to be verified, at least if the display could be believed; the elevator slid open to admit Coyle. He stepped inside, recited the address, and felt the surge of motion as the lift cell slid soundlessly upwards.

The elevator admitted Coyle to a diamond-shaped lobby, apparently in the center of the level, with a door in the center of each of the four walls. Each residence, therefore, was one-fourth of the level. Someone's doing very well for themselves, Coyle amended his earlier thought, thinking of his own two-room residence with kitchen alcove and bathroom. He walked to the correct door and keyed the intercom.

"Diamond Drive Deliveries; package for Ms. Arca Braden."

The security checks from below were repeated before the door opened.

"Thanks. That's for me?"

"If you're Ms. Braden."

"I am." She was in her forties, thin and attractively dressed. Her hair tapered to a razor-edged cut and cosmetics were applied with a careful, not heavy hand, projecting a businesslike and efficient image without sacrificing appearance.

"Then it's all yours. If you'd just indicate your acceptance of the delivery here..." Coyle handed Braden a dataplate, which Braden quickly coded in and returned. "Thanks, here you go." He gave Braden the package, then waited for her to reach for the door control before he, too turned. That was good customer relations, not just shoving a package into someone's hands and rushing off. After all, today's recipient might be tomorrow's sender, and Diamond Drive wasn't the only courier service on the ship.

Coyle was still waiting for the elevator when he heard the explosion even through the soundproofed walls.

~X X X~

"I'm not surprised the military police is having trouble making headway on this case," Donovan Ryland said. "You've got quite a conundrum here." Ryland looked like what he was: a Force, trained in the use of techniques which channeled Photon energy to manifest in real-world effects through his own will. His long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, square-framed spectacles, and green-and-white robes all supported the image of the studious and mystical.

"It's a public relations nightmare," admitted Galen Krone, executive vice president of Diamond Drive Deliveries. He was a well-fed man in expensive clothes tailored to perfectly fit his two hundred pounds. His neatly cut, glossy brown hair and moustache and pink, fresh-scrubbed skin further reflected his attention he paid to his appearance. "The investigation is frozen in the worst possible state."

Android Weinstine Co. Type L/Y-906 (Lyon for short) tipped her head to one side, a mannerism the orange-and-black RAcaseal's personality matrix suggested to indicate curiosity. The movement made the foxtail-like "hair" structure on the back of her head bob.

"Why is that?" she asked.

"The milipol's analysis of the crime-scene evidence established positively that the explosive had been inside the container when it detonated. That proves that we delivered the bomb to the murdered man!"

"Only, as a matter of routine, packages are run through a security sweep to prevent this kind of problem from happening," Ryland reviewed the facts from the police report copy on the dataplate he held. "The company's security logs indicate that the fatal package checked out at every stage."

"That's unusual," Lyon said.

"Setting aside the idea that the victim opened the package and placed the explosive inside it herself, there are a number of possibilities: the original sender somehow shielded the bomb from detection, someone tampered with the security sensors, someone tampered with the computers to show a false negative, or someone tampered with the package after the final security sweep—which occurs, by the way, when the package is loaded onto the delivery vehicle."

"The problem is that regardless of which explanation is correct, Diamond is at fault," Krone explained. "In the two weeks since the incident, business has dropped forty percent! And, since the milipol can't figure out what actually happened, we can't take steps to prevent it from happening again. Our marketing department could do something if we could at least fix the problem, whether it's to upgrade the sensors or expose a rogue employee. That would at least stop the bleeding of meseta. Better yet if we could prove that our competitors couldn't have done anything differently than we did. Pioneer 2 is not a huge market. There's a limited amount of courier business to be done and this could break us, shut us down for good."

"Plus there's the little matter of murder," Lyon remarked.

Krone smiled mirthlessly.

"Of course, that's regrettable, but I didn't know Arca Braden personally or professionally, and I don't work in law enforcement. My concern is the welfare of this company."

"You might even get some positive publicity out of it," Ryland said wryly, "if hunters hired by you crack the case ahead of the official force."

Krone showed his teeth.

"I think we'll get along just fine, Mr. Ryland."

~X X X~

Brightly colored fish swam by behind the transparent panel, their vivid yellows and oranges standing out against the bright blue of the water.

"The coffee here," Ryland decided after his first sip, "is lousy."

Lyon smiled.

"There are advantages to being an android."

"Why pick this place?"

They were seated in a booth on the lower level of the Blue Grotto, a moderately popular nightspot. The ceiling of the circular room was low, with an open area at the center with a spiraling ramp for access to the upper level. The aquarium completely surrounded it, pierced only by the various exit doors.

"I like the fish."

Organics, Lyon was well aware, liked to talk through matters over food and drink. It helped to relax their conscious minds and stimulate clear thought. As an android, though, she didn't consume food, and it always made her a little uncomfortable to be present while others did. It emphasized the differences.

Ryland grinned back at her.

"Why not? Besides, I clearly owe you one for picking this Guild Quest for us."

The android Ranger and human Force had been partners for nearly two years, but it hadn't taken anywhere near that long for Lyon to learn that Ryland liked puzzles and conundrums he would test out his wits on. Their last job had been on the surface of the planet Ragol, clearing genetically altered animals from a cave section so the Lab could set up an experimental waypoint, so Lyon had thought her partner would appreciate the contrast. She wasn't surprised that she'd been right, since she'd calculated an 83.6% chance it would gratify him, but his appreciation did make her feel good.

"Let's go over the police report," she suggested. "There's no sense in us covering ground that's already been thoroughly checked, and we can see what might be worth taking an additional look at."

"All right." He handed her the dataplate. Lyon could have linked to it and directly downloaded the entire contents to her memory, but instead chose to read through it the way an organic would. She hated to link herself to other systems, opening herself to potential hacking; while she'd do it if the job required it, it would never be a routine practice for her.

Besides, this way allowed her to absorb the data point-by-point, building it into a larger picture while talking things over with Ryland. Sometimes, the process helped trigger new ideas, connections, or paths of thinking.

"Let's start with the incident itself. The victim was Arca Braden, age forty-two, Resource Oversight Director with the Administration. She accepted delivery of the package from Diamond Drive Deliveries on March 14, at 837 beats. Security sensors indicated the detonation happened at 838."

"What kind of charge was used?" asked Ryland.

"It says 'unspecified Photon-based explosive.' Since there weren't chemical traces the bomb didn't have a particular signature. It apparently wasn't incendiary, though." Lyon paused. "This rules out some kind of homemade device, though. Explosives made to use Photon energy aren't like chemical ones, where a variety of common items can be mixed into a bomb. A Photon detonator can't be cooked up in a back room."

"That leaves a lot of sources, though. There's the military, the black market, or the arms manufacturers like Vise Corp."

"What surprises me is the 'unspecified' part. Usually you'd find some forensic trace of what kind of explosive was used. Damage to the crime scene was minor, largely cosmetic. That should be a clue in and of itself."

Photon technology could do that, Lyon reflected—create explosions that could destroy people but leave buildings unscathed. Ryland's pet theory, that Photon was the same power people had used to call "magic" thousands of years past, only now applied scientifically instead of through superstition, made more and more sense in the face of such evidence.

"That is strange. It implies that the device was something cutting-edge, experimental. Which if you think about it, doesn't make any sense."

"Why not?" Lyon wondered. "It seems logical to me."

Ryland sipped his coffee again, then made a face and pushed his glass away.

"The coffee here is really lousy, Lyon."

An inquisitive squid swam up to the glass and peered at them before jetting away.

"Do I complain when you pick somewhere to hang out whose only redeeming quality is the food I don't eat?"

"You have," Ryland admitted, "a point. Anyway, back to the bomb. An ordinary person in a private residential unit is a soft target. Exotic weapons aren't necessary. This was technological overkill. On the good side, though," he added with a smile, "it's a clue. Access to cutting-edge or experimental ordnance is limited. An ordinary Downtown black marketeer, for example, wouldn't be able to provide it."

"So why use it? Is it just a matter of ego?" Hunters had various weapon and tactical preferences, after all. Lyon herself, although a Ranger whose combat skills were optimized for long-range fighting, preferred hand-to-hand battle and had indeed originally partnered with Ryland so that her role would be to indulge that liking. Did the killer just have a fetish for the latest technology and not realize it put him or her at risk?

"It could be. Or it might be an access issue; the killer might only have access to specific kinds of explosives, if it was stolen instead of bought."

"Or perhaps the type of explosive was only incidental to the reason it was chosen."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"The relevant factor might not be the effects of the explosion. The biggest question is how the bomb evaded security sweeps which, while not exhaustive, do seem adequate according to this report. Maybe the bomb was picked for its ability to do that, rather than for what it did when it blew up."

"That's a good point. Do you think that's how the bomb got past security?"

Lyon shrugged. As an advanced AI, her personality matrix provided for a certain amount of non-verbal communication and mannerisms designed to better fit socially among the organics she worked with.

"I don't have enough data to assign even estimated probabilities to possible solutions." She paused, then added, "It is, however, the simplest solution."

Ryland caught it at once.

"I see. It doesn't require any additional, unusual factors. It's already established that the killer has access to unusual weaponry. This way, he or she doesn't also have to be an expert hacker or be a Diamond Drive employee with access to the system or to have hired one of either. It's a more elegant solution, just not necessarily more likely."

Lyon nodded.

"Here's something that is likely, though. We have a terrorist-style murder carried out using advanced weaponry, which targeted a government official. These all point to the motive being political."

"Conspiracy," Ryland agreed.