The tang of salt was in the air, swept in by tropical winds from the green-blue sea that surrounded them. The warmth of the afternoon sun was gentle, playing pleasantly on the skin.

It was hard to remember, Ryland thought, that it was all an illusion.

The Lab's virtual reality system was an incredible piece of work. Within what was ordinarily an empty room, it created artificial environments, physical constructs of Photon energy in realspace. Architecture, objects, creatures, all described as data and then manifested through the miracle of Photon technology. This wasn't VR in the common sense, where artificial stimuli were fed to the brain; there were actual, physical constructs that existed in the world, albeit within the specialized construct of the VR arena.

Ryland couldn't help wondering if some day in the future, it would be possible to have a system where such things could be created in the real world without the specialized environment, where a hunter in the field could have a particular weapon sent to them by an operator at a base site in response to a specific threat, for example. It was all yet another of the things that convinced him that "Photon" was nothing more or less than magic.

The VR system was the exclusive property of the Lab. It wasn't that they were hoarding the technology (although they might seek to do so if given the chance, people being what they were), but that their CALS was the only computer on Pioneer 2 with the capacity to handle the immense processing needs of maintaining the virtual environment.

"This is where Father's legacy can be found?"

Revelle Lucerne fumbled nervously with the Varista. A high-grade handgun (actually better than the railgun Lyon carried, which no doubt irked the android), the weapon was the standard model which the Lab offered to its scientists for dangerous field operations. This gun was actually Dr. Lucerne's, brought back when the body had been retrieved.

"Look around you," Ryland said.

For Ryland and Lyon, the VR environment called the Temple was familiar. It was used as a testing ground for recruiting hunters for Lab missions to establish minimum qualifications, and made available to said hunters for training and practice. Lucerne, though, was very likely seeing it for the first time, a sprawling complex of sand-colored stone, carved pillars, and rearing shrines, some crumbling into ruin with broken walls, toppled columns, open ceilings, weed-choked flagstones, and whole sections drowned beneath the encroaching sea.

"The Temple environment is actually based—with modifications, of course—on an archaeological site on Coral on the Tor Malisite coastline. Thousands of years ago, this was the centerpiece of an ancient culture and the worship of its gods." He laid a hand on one of the pillars. "Then time and politics pressed on, and it became a relic of the past, and the damage we'd inflicted on the environment caused climate change, and the sea came in to swallow it. If predictions are accurate, continued erosion might have caused it to sink and be destroyed by now."

He looked back over his shoulder at Lucerne.

"You see, now, what your father's message meant? These truly are the ruins of our past, and since the VR system is for use only by hunters, that's why you would need one to help you. Or perhaps it was just a reference to how a team would need to back you up to deal with the threats; the system is designed to automatically eject anyone who is injured beyond a certain threshold, but serious harm or even death are both possible. The creatures here are similar in power to those found on Ragol, after all."

"Creatures?" Lucerne asked. "Is that why..." She lifted the gun in her hands slightly while looking down at it.

"Exactly," Lyon said. "The combat training that happens here used VR versions of Ragol's monsters, since that's what we hunters have to fight most often while carrying out our work."

"Is...is it safe?"

"Yes, within reason."

She shuffled her feet. Lucerne wore a long-sleeved, flare-waisted jacket with a miniskirt-length hem over green leggings that shimmered with an ornate pattern. The outfit was clearly civilian, reminding Ryland of the non-scientist staffers that worked in the Lab section of the ship as opposed to a formal lab associate like the uniformed workers.

"The data was sent by Dr. Lucerne to CALS in a compressed-burst transmission, but not communicated to the Lab hierarchy," he continued. "I think he set it up in advance—as a scientist, he had legitimate access to CALS, and as a weapons researcher maybe even set up his own VR environments for testing. The data was received and stored here, to be retrieved later."

"But why would Father do that, Mr. Ryland?"

"We can't be sure, but my best guess is that it was as an emergency backup in case of factional strife. Remember, he only sent the information here when he was under threat of immediate death. If nothing had happened, I suspect he'd have just reported his findings in the customary manner, but this trick enabled him to leave the information where you, personally, were needed to get at it, so that you could use it to your benefit instead of letting it fall into the hands of various rivals, possibly including Lab scientists working in secret for the military or worse."

"Now, we just have to retrieve it," Lyon said.

The Dimenians jumped them in the very first room past the entrance, strange, roughly humanoid black creatures studded with the luminescent patches that were the trademark of D-cellular sub lifeforms and arms that turned into cleaver-like blades below the elbow. The only pleasant thing about the swarming creatures was that their bio-luminescence was color-coded for the hunters' convenience: blue for Dimenians, magenta for stronger, faster La Dimenians, and yellow for the strongest So Dimenians, thus allowing them to choose their tactics (and Ryland his techniques) for maximum efficiency.

They needed the edge, because the monsters came fast and furiously, new waves being created by CALS as each previous one was felled.

"That wasn't pretty," Lyon muttered as she cut down the last one. Ryland guessed the android would have been leaning on her partisan to catch her breath had she been human or Newman. The rapid-fire technique use had taken a lot out of him, as well, and he used a couple of Difluids to restore his capacity.

"If...if I'd tried to come in here without you, I'd have been killed!" Lucerne gaped. She'd fired freely into the mass of swarming creatures during the battle, chipping in while remaining safely behind her escort. Ryland appreciated that; too many "escort missions" he'd been on assumed an added level of difficulty when the person being escorted insisted on flinging themselves into close combat or otherwise ignoring their bodyguards' advice.

"It's probably a security measure, to doubly protect the data," Ryland said.

"That's silly," Lyon was less than sympathetic to the suggestion. "The point is that this version of the Temple, the one where Dr. Lucerne's data can be accessed, only appears when an appropriate ID is logged in as one of the participants. Loading it up with added challenges just makes it harder for our client."

Ryland nodded.

"It would be foolish. But then again, that sort of thing happens when amateurs design security measures. Too often, they consider only the individual obstacles instead of their purpose."

"That's true enough. Shall we move on?"

The next room looked to be some kind of temple courtyard, with two rows of columns leading up to a series of steps and a kind of altar-like sculpture that rose against the back wall. Ryland wondered if, in its original version, the room had once had a ceiling and had served as a sanctuary for services, or had always been outdoors beneath the sky, and what that meant for the beliefs and practices of its builders. Now, it was all just a ghost, a monument to the forgotten memories of a forgotten people.

He himself, though, was not forgotten, nor was his business here. He supposed it was the nature of that business as much as his own interests that made his mind so eager to lose itself in speculations about a comfortably vanished past.

Lyon stepped forward, gungnir at the ready, and the next wave of attackers appeared.

As the Dimenians advanced, a loud buzzing sound could be heard, and at the far end of the court a bulbous, pitcher-like structure descended, carried by insects not unlike mosquitoes if mosquitoes were a meter long. Even as Ryland caught the advancing monsters with the Jellen technique to sap their strength, he watched more Mothmants spit themselves out of the nest-like Monest and hurl towards fresh prey.

Fire exploded among the Dimenians, consuming the first wave of Mothmants as well in Ryland's technique and a second casting finished the Dimenians as well. As the last of the sub lifeforms fell, another creature of the darkness shimmered into place, a Dark Belra, looking like a twenty-foot-tall animated clay sculpture. Its steps were lumbering, but it had another weapon to make up for its lack of mobility: it raised its three-clawed arm and suddenly its "hand" launched itself like a rocket.

"Look out!" Lyon exclaimed and dove at Lucerne, her metal hand closing on the Newman's jacket and pulling her to the ground, just in the nick of time.

A Mothmant was diving at the prone woman, but Lucerne rolled to her side and fired twice, catching the creature in mid-flight and sniping it out of the air. While she and Lyon swatted bugs, Ryland locked in on the Belra and blew it away with an explosion of light from the Grants technique. With the Mothmants dead, the nest was defenseless and the hunters soon had the room cleared.

On the altar, a glowing orb appeared, a common symbol in the VR system for a quest's goal, something to be retrieved.

"That's it, then," Ryland said. "That's what it's all been about. All the killings, all the violence, all the scheming and spying."

Lucerne gave him a curious look.

"Aren't you happy that your deduction was right?"

He supposed he should be. Certainly, that was the normal way of things, especially after a job with as many twists and turns as this one had, but he didn't. He felt drained, almost empty. Part of that was Kendric, of course, and what had happened with Justine. There was no way to get around the impact that had had. But that wasn't all. Dr. Lucerne, the death of a mind which had apparently believed some of the same things he had, striven towards the same goals, that was a tragedy by itself.

And the circumstances of it...

No, it was no surprise that he felt this way. There was no conveniently happy ending for this job the way there had been for the Valentine's Day case. Oh, there would be justice, he hoped, or at least vengeance, but that wasn't winning. It was just...balancing the scales, canceling out the losses, at best.

"I'm glad that we didn't fail," was the only answer he knew was true.

She nodded, then turned towards the steps, ascending them one by one. She bent and touched the glow; it vanished, but her PDL beeped and she took it out.

"It's asking me to accept a data transfer?"

"An automated response from CALS."

Lucerne touched the device and the download began. A few moments later, the PDL beeped again. Her face lit up.

"That's it!" she said excitedly, looking through the data. "This is my father's work! Collected weapons research from Pioneer 1, together with his own notes and annotations. You've done it!"

Ryland nodded.

"Of course you're excited. After all, when you commit murder, but can't actually achieve what you killed for...well, that must be awfully frustrating, Ms. Lucerne, or should I say, Ms. Vallere."

She didn't try to protest or stand around stunned, he had to give her that. Her reflexes were fast and her brain adapted quickly to the new situation. Her hand came up with the Varista, but Lyon's gungnir descended, the blade striking the weapon and tearing it from Lucerne's hand to go skittering over the flagstones.

"Oh, please give me an excuse," the android said. "The down side to using your civilian identity is that you're stuck wearing a civilian frame, not the equipment a professional hunter would wear. You don't stand a chance against us."

"Look, we can deal. We have the data now. I've got a buyer lined up."

"Who? Not the army or Black Paper, or else you'd have had their backup instead of hiring us."

"Mick Co., the arms manufacturer. Their local rep doesn't like playing third fiddle in their own field to Weinstine and P2E, and figured that if they could apply Pioneer 1 experimental research, pretend to have discovered it, and go to market, they'll have a good chance of picking up business from the military and hunters alike. I'm serious, here; I'll cut the two of you in for an added share."

Lyon glanced at Ryland.

"She can't possibly think that we'd accept that?"

"It makes more sense than holding out, letting us kill her for it in a 'training accident' and sell it ourselves. Particularly when you consider that she already knows that Kendric and I are looking for revenge."

Lucerne again proved that she was quick-thinking, though, when in the moment the hunters' eyes were on each other, she pulled an emergency telepipe from her pocket and triggered it.

Or at least, she tried to.

"Nice try, but teleportation out is being blocked," Ryland told her.

"You can think of us as the boss for this stage," Lyon added.

Their ex-client's gaze went from one to the other like a hunted animal, constantly watching for a means of escape.

"How did you know?"

"Cyndra Vallere was missing," Ryland said.

She scowled.

"I should never have given you the team names."

"No, you had to. We could have found out from other sources, and if you'd lied to us it would have looked very bad. And you don't look all that much alike in the two identities: Vallere used spiky blue hair and dressed in skimpy outfits that showed off her arms, legs, and back. They also showed off her light-gel tattoos, which are Slashers gang colors; like Dorn, she was—you are—an ex-Slasher. A better set of pictures, especially without that mask-like visor you would wear, would have let Lyon compare the details of 'Cyndra's' face with 'Revelle Lucerne's.' To an android the tricks that confuse an organic's perception of disguise don't work as well. But Kendric did manage to get us one image to back up the description."

Lucerne's scowl deepened.

"And that was enough?"

Lyon nodded.

"Of course."

"The problem was Barton Dorn," Ryland said. "What we could never pin down were his loyalties. Was he with the Slashers, still involved in the attack on your father? If so, why did they kill him? And why would he betray Dr. Lucerne? Was he loyal to your father? If so, why not report to Lab authorities? And why send you those simple-mails telling a lying story about what happened? We'll get back to those, by the way.

"When we found out that Cyndra Vallere, the missing member of the team, was an ex-Slasher, though, it all made sense. Dorn's loyalties were confusing because they were divided. You stabbed Vance in the back, then went into the next room and shot Dr. Lucerne. Dorn probably watched you do it, but had no idea you planned it and so was taken completely by surprise—of all people, he'd know of your dual identity, and so would be taken off-guard. He probably stood there, dumbstruck, while it all happened. Or was he out on patrol at the time?"

"He came in just as I was finishing off Sif. The old man was dead already."

"I see. And he thought it was personal, not Slashers gang business."

She actually growled at him, like a feral animal.

"It was personal. That bastard never gave a damn about me or my mother while she was alive. She was a four-month fling for him, a bar-girl he'd dated while he was a graduate student, but once he got his degree he left her without a second thought to take a fancy job in another country. He'd been gone two months before she even knew the damned contraceptives hadn't worked. They don't always on Newmen, you know, with our hybrid biology. She had no way to contact him and no desire to, after he'd dumped her by a goddamn text message!"

Lucerne's hands curled into fists.

"It was blind coincidence we both ended up on Pioneer 2. I saw him when he was slumming Downtown, looking for a piece of cheap tail. I guess that hadn't changed over the years. I wanted to vomit at the sight of it, but then I figured, hell, why shouldn't I get mine? So I went right up to him and introduced myself. Bart Dorn was my witness, and got a record of the meeting, just in case dear Daddy decided I should 'disappear' instead of causing trouble. Of course, he insisted on genetic testing to make sure I wasn't lying, but when that proved we really were father and daughter he didn't have an out."

"Why the second identity, though?" Lyon asked. "Why create 'Revelle Lucerne' instead of introducing you for who you were?"

The Newman snorted.

"Kylan Lucerne admit that a ganger-girl was his daughter? Oh, no, that would have damaged his standing in the scientific community! He might have had his pure and spotless reputation speckled by it! So he hooked up with his Administration contacts to build me a fake identity as the legitimate daughter of a poor, deceased wife from long ago. It's not like anyone would be able to check back on Coral to make sure there'd even been a marriage, particularly with the amount of records lost in the war years."

"So you became Revelle Lucerne, but also kept up as Cyndra Vallere, even became a hunter with your father's help. And I assume he sponsored Dorn as well because Dorn knew the truth."

"Exactly. Only Bart figured I was just going to soak the old man, live it up to make up for the years of doing without. He—Bart—figured it was his big chance to go legit, be a real hunter and make something of himself, so he played it straight. But the whole time, I know what I wanted to do the old bastard. I just needed a way to make something off it. He wasn't stupid enough to make me his heir and put a bounty on his head, even if he got stuck allowing me next-of-kin rights, and after growing up with less than nothing because he couldn't take responsibility I wasn't going to take less than all I had coming."

Ryland was surprised at how easily the poison seemed to spill out of her. He'd expected to confront her with the facts, get a lot of denials or silence or just insults in response. He hadn't expected a confession, and especially he hadn't thought she'd be so freely filling in details.

"But when he was assigned to do research on Ragol, you saw your chance."

"I told you straight about it, what he was interested in, what he was doing. And Stane really was his rival, just another full-of-himself old fool drunk on power. I gave you his name as a red herring, but I guess you didn't fall for it. Ah, well, you can't have everything."

"So you found a buyer, recruited the Slashers as backup, and then went after your father. Dorn didn't want to turn you in, but he didn't want to just walk away and let you get away with murdering the man who'd been his patron. So he backed off, tried to pull himself together, and come to a decision: turn you in, or join up? Only while he was thinking, you were acting, and weren't willing to take the chance of him going the wrong way. And he didn't know you'd brought your old gang in on the job—and quite probably painted him as a cold-feet sellout just to make sure that they'd go along with cutting him down." He paused, then looked at her curiously. "Why did you recruit the Slashers in the first place? They were just a drain on your bottom line and a clue that came back to point at you."

"Backup muscle. I couldn't trust that Mick Co. would pay off in cash instead of a shot in the head, if I didn't have protection. And they could only point the finger at Cyndra Vallere. Dorn was the only one who knew I was also Revelle Lucerne, since I'd already left the gang when the bastard set up the new identity."

"I see."

"Here's what I don't get," Lyon cut in. "Why did you hire us in the first place?"

"To find this." She waved a hand to indicate the virtual-reality environment. "Dorn gave me that damned riddle and I couldn't figure out what it meant, and I'd already had him killed so I couldn't ask him."

"He tell you the riddle?" Ryland was genuinely surprised. "Good grief, why?"

Lucerne smirked.

"Because, he was in love with me. You get it now? He'd told me before any of this went down about how the old man had a secret hidey-hole for stashing data, even gave me the hint."

"I see. And Dr. Lucerne sent this data here because it was the only place he could send it to keep it out of your hands on Ragol, making just a sad coincidence you yourself were the person who could access it—not as a legacy left to his daughter, but because 'Revelle Lucerne' was Dr. Lucerne's next of kin, will or not, and so CALS acknowledged you as effectively being him for his personal system activities. So you hired us to solve the riddle and because the riddle itself said you needed hunters so you wanted us as backup for the retrieval."

"Exactly. And you pulled it off fine. All right, you learned too much, but we can work with that. An extra twenty-five thousand meseta each ought to repay you for the added brainwork in putting the pieces together, right?"

"And end up like Barton Dorn?"

Lucerne snorted.

"Please. You're not idiots or you wouldn't have me at bay. I'm sure your e-runner brother has already set up a data drop on a deadman switch so that if I cross you the whole thing goes to the Lab or the milipol or becomes the lead news story on InfoNet. And once you take my money, you're accessories, so you'll burn with me if you try a double-cross or blackmail. It's just good business for us both, right?"

"Let me tell you something," Ryland said.

"What?"

"You murdered your father and stole from him because he used your mother for thrills, then walked away and left her, not caring enough to stay in touch or give her any way to tell him about you, so that the two of you grew up in poverty and she ended up dead, being a single mother probably making it all the harder on her. When he met you on Pioneer 2, you made him acknowledge you but he had the fake identity created because he couldn't face up to admitting the real you, with your real circumstances, was his daughter. In other words, both back then and now, he was a selfish pig who walked away from family responsibilities."

He paused to let that hang for a moment, before finishing.

"I'm not."

He raised his head and spoke to the air.

"We're done here. You can come get her."

The VR field shut down, structures vanishing to leave nothing but a huge, empty domed room with a floor of green hexagonal tiles, very similar to how it appeared when the VR space was set up for Spaceship Final although with completely bare walls. The shimmer of multiple teleports cleared to reveal several uniformed IntSec officers who quickly moved to take Lucerne and her data-laden PDL into custody.

A fifty-foot-tall screen appeared at the far end of the room, showing an elegantly dressed woman nearing middle age, with her red hair pinned up and a monocle over one eye.

"Did you get all that, Chief Milarose?" Lyon asked.

"Yes, of course. CALS recorded the entire encounter, and I found it most educational to watch. It's always so much easier when wrongdoers confess in their own words. I do thank you for the return of Dr. Lucerne's research data. I can only wonder at his motive for preparing this hiding place for it. Like father, like daughter, I suppose. Traits do seem to run in families."

Lyon glanced at her partner.

"I'm glad that applies to the good ones, too," she said.

~X X X~

The room in the Medical Center hadn't changed its appearance since the last time: the same walls, the same screens, the same blonde Newman girl lying comatose in the bed.

"I wish I could have seen her face as the IntSec guys dragged her off," Kendric muttered. One significant difference was that this time he didn't bother with a disguise.

"That's easy to arrange," Lyon offered. Her presence at all was the other major change. "I can connect my visual memory to a display screen and replay the entire confrontation if you like."

The younger Ryland brother actually managed a grin at that.

"I didn't mean it literally, Lyon."

"Ah. I wasn't quite sure. I knew it could be an idiomatic usage, but I also know that many organics do find emotional fulfillment in seeing their enemies' downfall first-hand."

"You've got a point there." He sighed. "It's just, while I'm damned glad she's going down for this, it doesn't actually help Justine."

Ryland nodded.

"Revenge can't fix what's broken; it only makes sure that the breaker doesn't profit by it." He paused a moment, then added, "So there's been no change from the doctor's reports?"

"No, actually, they now think she'll come out of it. Recovery, though, that's going to take up to six months. The wireburn damage was nearing the irreversible stage, and making repairs without causing memory loss or...behavioral side-effects...is slow and delicate work." He gave a long, heavy sigh. "At least that's something, though. She got really lucky in a way; even as late as yesterday, they said, it was no better than a coin flip to know if they'd be able to get 'all of her' back."

He was starting to tremble, until his older brother's hand came to rest lightly on his shoulder.

"I don't know why I feel this way," he said softly. "I mean, she's not just a bounce, sure, but I'm not sure I could say I love her, either. Not in the sense of spending my life with her, having a family..."

"It's like I told you before," Lyon said. "It's something you Rylands share, that sense of responsibility. You may or may not love Justine, but she's yours all the same. Just like Ryland feels about you."

Lyon had the rare pleasure of seeing two men blushing at once.

"I didn't say—"

"That is—"

"Men!" she snorted. "You ought to be proud of yourselves for it, not blushing like schoolgirls. If Kylan Lucerne had half that character, he'd be alive now picking out Christmas-tree decorations with his daughter instead of him being dead and her facing life as a test subject."

"It's no more than she deserves," Kendric growled, then blinked. "Wait, what was that?"

"Three murders, including of a Lab scientist, while on a Lab mission, in territory that's under Lab jurisdiction. That should trump one contracted killing on the ship, if the milipol wants to make an issue out of it, which they probably won't. I'm guessing she'll end up 'volunteering' for something ferociously unethical and likely black-budgeted."

Kendric glanced at his brother.

"Did you know about that?"

"I did."

"Good," the young man said, smiling wolfishly. "Justine's the kind of girl who'd like an over-the-top vengeance."

"She deserves it, especially since it's partly because of her we caught Lucerne or Vallere or whatever she wants to call herself."

"How?"

"We had suspicions, but proof? Evidence enough that we could feel confident walking up to Natasha Milarose and saying, 'we have the killer of a Lab scientist and know where to find his stolen data,' knowing what lengths she might go to? I might not even have realized Lucerne was responsible, except that she just couldn't resist gilding the lily."

"Gilding the—? Big bro, you could use expressions that have actually been in use since this ship left Coral, you know."

"It means to add overly elaborate elements and unnecessary embellishments that work against what you're trying to do. In this case, Lucerne kept trying to 'sell' her story to us. That's why she had Justine attacked by her Slasher friends. She knew about me having a brother who lived Downtown from the hunter grapevine and the Slashers tracked you from there. The point was to prompt me, not to run away, but to be motivated to look harder and also to be hotheaded about it, maybe to take the bait and go after Stane to keep the truth buried under red herrings. But time and again we found nothing that would let anyone else know we'd been hired. That created my first suspicion: that she'd told the Slashers herself and everything else was window dressing."

"I get it. It's like Dorn's reports, the ones you had me check on after you came back from Ragol."

"Right. She could have just told us that Dorn told her the phony story, but she had to dress it up with evidence, those fake simple-mails. Except you got into her PDL and found that she'd received them after Dorn's death. That's because she didn't think up the idea of them until she realized she needed to hire hunters. And she should have had 'Dorn' tell a better story—at least, one that explained Cyndra Vallere being missing, like saying that she'd been lost over a cliff or something while exploring the island. Something, at any rate, that didn't make it obvious Vallere was a person of interest."

"Be fair; at the time she never expected we'd check on Ragol to see what happened," Lyon pointed out.

"True, but a better lie would have accounted for the possibility. There's no need to tell lies that don't accomplish anything. All it does is give your enemies more chances to expose you."

"Which one of us grew up in the underworld again, Donny?"

"Kid, if you think academic research isn't an underworld, you just haven't been paying attention."

Kendric's eyebrows shot up.

"What's this 'kid' stuff?"

Ryland grinned.

"You think you're the only one who can use nicknames?"

"And you're talking like a human being, not a professor!"

"You're talking like a human being, not a thug," the Force noted.

"The both of you are listening to the android when she points out how silly you act towards each other normally?" Lyon suggested.

They shared a look.

"Any way we can get out of this without admitting she's right?" Kendric asked.

"I'll let you know if I think of something."

"Cute," Lyon said. "Ryland, we'd better get going. We're already late for Terence and Rina's Christmas party, and you know she wants at least one other android there. I think she wants to set me up, though."

"That kind of scares me. Kendric?"

"Nah, go on. I'm going to stay here a while longer."

"Are you sure? I know Rina wouldn't mind another guest. Actually, she'd probably be thrilled."

"I know, but...I think I'm going to stay a while. I know Justine can't actually tell the difference like she is now, but she doesn't have any family and, well, it is Christmas. I'll stop by when visiting hours are up in another hundred beats, okay?"

Lyon nodded.

"Yeah, that's fine. I'll have Rina save you some of her egg nog."

"AI-made egg nog?"

"Don't look at me," Ryland said. "I'm as confused as you are. We'll see you there, Kendric."

The partners got about halfway down the corridor to the elevator before Lyon spoke up.

"I'm sorry that your Christmas gift turned out like it did, Ryland. Family betrayals don't exactly make for happy holiday entertainment."

"True. On the other hand, Chief Milarose noted that we had found Dr. Lucerne's missing data and caught his murderer, so we did complete the terms of the Guild Quest, so she authorized payment in full for what was owed us, plus a bonus."

"Oh? You didn't mention the bonus. That was surprisingly generous of her."

"She'll probably recoup it from the assets of Dr. Lucerne's estate," Ryland noted cynically, "which no longer has an heir to pass to since the next of kin was the killer. For all we know the Lab was his will's beneficiary anyway. So at least we can pay Gowan and Naomi and still have something for ourselves out of all this. Besides..."

"Yes?"

"It's an object lesson."

He stopped in front of the elevator and pressed the call button.

"Oh?"

"You have to admit, there are similarities with myself and Kendric. Only...seeing the kind of ways things can go sour in a family, it's a reminder to me to not go down that same path."

"The two of you have been snapping at each other quite a bit less than you were when this job began. Of course, part of that is him learning that you weren't so neglectful or careless that it all was your fault, so he stopped jumping down your throat any more and claiming you were. But even so...maybe it was good for you both."

"Excuse me?"

"Well, you're fundamentally honest people, both of you—in terms of emotions, of course; we won't talk about Kendric's work," Lyon amended. "So when it was pointed out that he'd been wrong about you being at fault and you'd been wrong about him being irresponsible and careless, you faced up to it and you started treating each other more like the people you are and not the people you thought you were."

The elevator doors swished open.

"So in a way, I really did get a Christmas present out of this. You tried to give me an entertaining job, and instead you got me a better relationship with the only human family I have left." They stepped forward. "Given that the Christmas holidays are supposed to be a time for renewing and reestablishing those ties, I'd say that means something."

"I guess so. Hey, wait; what did you mean by, 'human' family? Do some Newmen come from Ryland genetics or something?"

He touched the button for the lobby.

"I meant, here it is, Christmas Eve, and I'm spending it at a party with you."

She looked surprised, something that her facial structure didn't convey well due to her irisless eyes but that he'd come to recognize over the two years he'd known her, then pleased and a little embarrassed. But it was true, he thought as the doors slid closed. After all, "family" didn't just mean a genetic connection; they were the people you opened your heart to, and Ryland figured that under that definition his partner—and best friend—qualified as well as anyone.