“I have to admit, she looked hot in that form-fitting science division uniform, but she was a real… bossy woman. I wasn’t the type of man to be bossed around by anyone, not even by hot women. She outranked me, so of course I had to follow her orders, but I warned her if she crossed the line I’d file sexual harassment charges with the JAG officer.
“She smirked and said, ‘I want you, Ensign June, and I always get what I want.’
“Delilah’s science team figured out the Hykonians were using a quantum uncertainty field on their missiles, so Delilah designed these special telescopes to take super accurate measurements and cancel out the uncertainty. Next time we saw a Hykonian missile coming at us, we only saw one, and we shot it down before it reached its target. Then we shot down a few of their flying saucers to get even for the third armada.
“Human and Hykonian diplomats agreed to a cease-fire after that, but our forces had taken a serious beating, and we didn’t have enough resources to repair the damage. We knew the Hykonian military was prepared to strike again if negotiations failed, so we had to get ready too.
“We desperately needed platinum group metals, especially iridium and osmium, and the next shipment from Earth was at least three months away. So we had to sneak across enemy lines to reach the Yolan asteroid belt. That was the best source of metal available to us.
“My commanding officer sent me, two other pilots, and a bulk freighter to the asteroid belt, but he didn’t sign the orders. He wanted plausible deniability if we were caught.
“The mission went well, but as we were returning to base a Vorpon pirate ship decloaked and opened fire. The Space Force was so focused on the Hykonian military we didn’t even know Vorpons were in the sector. My wingmen were killed, and I was captured along with a dozen members of the freighter’s crew.
“The Vorpons offered to ransom us to the Earth Republic first and threatened to sell us to the Hykonians if Earth didn’t accept their offer. But my commanding officer had his plausible deniability, and the Hykonians refused to pay the Vorpons’ price. Maybe negotiations were going well, and they didn’t want an excuse to start fighting again.
“Whatever the reason, the Vorpons were stuck with us. Eventually, they decided to eat us. They did it slowly, one person each day. I think they enjoyed hearing us scream more than the taste of human flesh. And the way they chewed on the bones when they were done… that awful crunching… it’s true what they say about Vorpon gluttony.”
Father smiled. He even laughed.
“Meanwhile, Delilah raised hell. When the Space Force wouldn’t do anything, she commandeered a Victory-class gunship. You’re supposed to fly those things with at least five crewmen, but she jury-rigged the computer and flew it alone. Came at those pirates with guns blazing. Took out their engines, weapons, and communications before they knew what hit them.
“Vorpons are hard to kill. They’re three times bigger than us, and their exoskeletons are so thick you can’t even pierce them with a plasma rifle. But when Delilah came aboard, she slaughtered them. Shot each one dead in the middle eye.”
Father laughed again.
“Since Delilah developed the technology we used against the Hykonians, the Space Force decided to be lenient. She’d committed mutiny and stolen a Space Force starship, but they let her off with dishonorable discharge and no jail time. I resigned and went with her back to Earth. We got married a year later.”
Talie smiled. “As you said, she always got what she wanted. One last question: did your wife still boss you around?”
Father snorted. “You bet she did.”
Leo had always assumed mother’s dishonorable discharge resulted from her offensive personality. He’d pictured her screaming obscenities at an admiral or something. He’d never heard the true story before. Based on his sisters’ reactions, he guessed they hadn’t either.
“Zeta June,” Talie said. “How old are you?”
“Seven,” Zeta answered shyly.
“Zeta, did your mother boss you around like she did your father?”
Zeta glanced at father then her older siblings. The question confused her.
The male cyborg, Mr. Cognis, plugged a cable into his cranial implant, and a holographic video screen appeared in the middle of the room. The image showed the atrium at the education center where all the June children attended school. The camera panned across the orchids and oil palms, ending on a little girl hiding under the leaves of an overgrown philodendron. She was crying.
“Is that you?” Talie asked.
Zeta nodded yes.
“Why were you crying?”
“Because the other kids made fun of me. They said I was wasting the planet’s food and water and that I shouldn’t have been born.”
“Why would they say that?”
“Because I’m a third child.”
The camera zoomed in, showing Zeta’s tear stained face. The real Zeta, the one sitting in the plush, blue chair, sniffled when she saw herself.
“You caused a lot of trouble that day,” Talie said. “You were supposed to be in afterschool science club. The whole staff had to search for you, and they called your mother to tell her you were missing.”
“ZETA CARINA JUNE!” mother’s voice shouted. In the recording, Zeta stopped crying. She held perfectly still, not even breathing, absolute terror imprinted on her face.
“ZETA CARINA JUNE!!!” mother shouted again. Just hearing her voice made Leo cringe. Aurora muttered something under her breath, and next to her Zeta covered her ears and started sobbing.
Helpless, the children watched as mother found Zeta, grabbed her by the ankle, and dragged her out from under the plant’s broad leaves. Zeta kicked and screamed, “I don’t want to go back! I don’t want to go back!”
“You have another hour of science club on your schedule, young lady,” mother said, lifting her struggling daughter off the ground.
“I hate science club. Everybody’s mean to me. I want to quit!”
“That’s not an option,” mother answered. Two teachers stood nearby watching uncomfortably.
“You are staying in science club, and that is final,” mother said. “I don’t care if the other children make fun of you. The only good jobs are in the sciences, and if you want to succeed you have to start preparing for your career now.”
“What if I don’t want a job in sciences?” Zeta said through her tears.
Mother slapped her hard across the face. “You are too young to know what you want. When you grow up, you’ll thank me for making you stay, and if the other kids are mean to you you be mean to them. Fight fire with fire. Do you understand?”
Zeta shook her head no. Mother slapped her again.
“Do you understand?”
“I hate you!” Zeta screamed, fighting to break free of mother’s grip. “I hate you and I wish you were dead!”
The video froze. Talie turned to the central camera. “This happened the day before Delilah June’s murder,” she said.
“I didn’t do it!” Zeta shrieked, curling into a tiny ball in her chair.
Father reached for his youngest daughter, but she shrank away from him. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”
“This is absurd,” Aurora snapped. “Zeta is a little girl. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t bludgeon someone to death.”
“What about you?” Talie asked. “You’re strong enough. Would you kill your mother?”
“Yeah, I might’ve,” Aurora said, “but someone else got to her first.”
A new picture appeared on the holographic screen. Under the austere archway of a spaceport, surrounded by flashing advertisements and the shining words “Welcome to Earth,” one lonely alien shuffled through the busy crowd. Its skin was blue and slightly transparent, revealing internal organs in murky shades of purple. Its blob-like body trembled in the shadow of so many tall, impatient humans, and its big, milky eye watched them nervously. One of its tentacles clutched a small travel bag.
“This video is from early tomorrow morning,” Talie said. “Do you recognize this alien?”
“I’d recognize him anywhere,” Aurora answered, her voice uncharacteristically timid.
“What’s his name?” Talie asked.
“Omglom,” Aurora whispered. “His name is Omglom.”
The image changed. Omglom stood fidgeting in front of the camera. “What brings you to Earth?” Cognis’s monotone voice asked in the recording.
“I heard about Aurora’s mother on the news,” Omglom said. “I’m a friend of hers. Of Aurora’s, I mean. I… I wanted to be here for her.”
Omglom’s tentacles gripped the bag tighter, and a green tinge colored his face as though he were blushing.
The video screen disappeared, and all the cameras focused on Aurora. She seemed overcome by both joy and sorrow seeing this Omglom creature who claimed to be her friend.
“Last year,” Aurora began, “mother sent me to Mars for the Junior Astronomers Symposium. It’s an exclusive program for top science students. I didn’t qualify, but mother had connections and was determined to get me in.
“They didn’t have many aliens. Omglom was the only one of his species. I’d never seen anything so ugly before.
“One day, I had to sit with him at lunch. The cafeteria was packed. Every seat was taken except at Omglom’s table because, of course, no one wanted to sit next to a blue blob monster.
“I had a presentation on star formation next hour, so I opened my data-pad and pretended to study so I wouldn’t have to talk to him.
“Omglom had a bowl of soup in front of him. He kept staring at it, but he wasn’t eating. Then he stuck a tentacle in it, tried to hold the liquid and quickly slurp it up with his mouth. He spilled soup everywhere, including on me.