“He apologized, and his face turned sort of green like he was embarrassed. He said he was trying to eat with his mouth like everyone else. You see, his people don’t have natural mouths. They absorb nutrients through their skin. Omglom had his mouth surgically added before the symposium so he could communicate with other species.
“I gave him my spoon–I had a sandwich, so I didn’t need it–and showed him how to use it.
“The funniest part of the conversation was when he told me how ugly us multi-cellular organisms are, and he said he was frightened when I sat down at his table because I was the ugliest one he’d ever seen.
“I laughed and told him the human boys didn’t think I was ugly. He turned green again and went back to his soup.
“When mother signed me up for that symposium, I resented it, but Omglom changed things. I ate with him every day, whether the cafeteria was crowded or not. We became lab partners, we helped each other with our presentations, and sometimes we snuck off together to the sky dome to look at the stars.
“On Rog, Omglom’s home planet, the clouds are so thick you can never see the stars. Omglom told me most Rogi don’t even believe they exist, and they have all kinds of dreadful superstitions about space travel.
“I hate science and astronomy, mainly because mother pushed it on me so much, but seeing the stars with Omglom–seeing them the way he saw them–it was magical. Best of all, I could tell him all the stuff mother had forced me to learn, and the way he listened to me, with his little, surgically added mouth hanging open–he was the most beautiful ugly, blue monster I’d ever seen.”
Leo gawked at his sister. What happened to the arrogant, defiant Aurora he knew? Who was this bashful, young woman who’d taken her place?
“So,” Talie said, “you and Omglom are friends?”
“We’re a little more than friends,” Aurora said. “The last night of the symposium, before I went back to Earth and he went back to Rog, we… umm…”
“Oh my God!” Leo said. “You had sex with it!”
“Shut up!” Aurora answered. “And don’t say ‘it.’ He has a name.”
“But… you had sex with it!”
Aurora sneered at Leo. “He does amazing things with his tentacles. Besides, at least I have a boyfriend. How many girlfriends have you had? And those pictures of Talie Tappler under your bed don’t count.”
Leo felt instant sweat on his face. He glanced at Talie. She glared back at him.
“Anyway,” Talie said, turning back to Aurora. “What did you say to your mother when you came home?”
“I thanked her. Going to the Junior Astronomers Symposium was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I thanked her for teaching me so much about stars and galaxies and the universe, and I said I’d work hard so I could qualify to go again next year on my own merits.
“But somehow she found out about the whole thing between me and Omglom. She said she wouldn’t let me go back. She said, ‘No daughter of mine is going to act like a whore for some slimy alien.’”
“Is that why you wanted to kill her?” Talie asked.
“That’s one reason.”
“Enough,” father said. “Aurora, we will discuss this later.
“Ms. Tappler, it’s one thing for you to accuse me of killing my wife, but I will not allow you to accuse my two children of being murderers. Delilah was hard on them, but that was her way of showing her love.”
“Two children?” Leo said. “There are three of us.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” father said. “There’s a law against having more than two children.”
“We’d have to pay a fine,” Aurora added.
“But…” Leo said.
“Coming up after the break,” Talie said to the central camera, “7-year-old Zeta has vanished, and most of her family doesn’t remember she ever existed in the first place.”
* * *
Leo rose to his feet. Talie watched him with cold curiosity as he walked around Aurora to Zeta’s empty chair. He placed a hand on the seat; it didn’t even feel warm.
“Sixty seconds!” the female cyborg announced.
Leo sank to the floor and covered his eyes. He started to cry. He’d felt guilty for mother’s death, and for some reason beyond his comprehension he felt guilty for Zeta’s disappearance as well.
“You know, I was wondering why we had this fourth chair,” Aurora said.
“Leo,” father said, “stop acting foolish. Your mother disagreed with the two-child limit, but she obeyed the law. When she got pregnant a third time, she performed her civic duty and had it terminated.”
Leo let his hands drop. He didn’t care if his father and sister saw him like this. He didn’t care about Talie, the news crew, or the Tomorrow News Network’s trillions of viewers. He just wanted little Zeta back.
“Ten seconds,” the cyborg said. She counted down, and the show began again.
Talie explained how Leo wanted to be a journalist, how he and mother had fought over it, and how they’d argued hours before her death. She played the clip where Leo said, “In a way, I’m glad she’s dead. Maybe I can start my new career in peace.”
Leo ignored it all.
“Murder is a crime according to the laws of Earth,” Talie said, “but a far greater crime has been committed: a violation of the laws of physics.”
Talie pulled out a battered, old pocket watch and showed it to the camera. “Time travelers like myself often carry time pieces like this one. Every member of our news crew here today is wearing a watch of some kind: a pocket watch, a wristwatch… our cybernetic employees have theirs wired into their circuits. These devices are modified to allow us to travel through time, but they also protect us when other time travelers change history. Today, we brought a few modified grandfather clocks for extra protection because time is changing around us in unpredictable ways.
“Already, one member of the June family has been erased from history, and Leo June is the only one who remembers her. Leo, do you know why?”
“No,” Leo whimpered.
“Roll up your sleeves,” Talie said.
Leo obeyed and heard father and Aurora gasp. Despite everything that had happened, despite how Talie had betrayed him, he still thought of his old, toy wristwatch as a good luck charm and had decided to wear it again that morning.
“It’s broken,” Leo said. “It hasn’t worked in years.”
“How did you break it?” Talie asked.
Leo covered his face. His eyes stung, his breath came in uneven gasps, and he heard his heartbeat throbbing in his ears.
“Leo,” Talie said gently, “you didn’t just want to be a journalist. You wanted to be a time traveling journalist, which means you had to learn something about chronotheory, the science of time travel.”
Leo didn’t answer.
“Leo, how did you break your watch?”
“I read somewhere,” he said, “that you can turn an ordinary watch into a time machine if you expose it to a quantum uncertainty field. Mother had a quantum generator at her lab, so I tried putting it in there. It didn’t work.”
“During the war,” Talie said, “the Hykonians used quantum uncertainty fields to make their missiles exist in multiple points in space. Chronotheorists use them to make watches exist in multiple points in time. It’s the first step in building a time machine.
“Your watch isn’t broken, Leo. It’s just an incomplete time machine.”
Leo opened his eyes and found Talie smiling back at him.
“Time is a living, breathing thing,” Talie said, addressing the cameras. “It thinks. It moves and changes on its own. When a time traveler harms it, it tries to repair the damage. If it can’t, it starts erasing people from history so the damage never occurs in the first place.
“Inspector Green, the murderer you’re looking for is a time traveler, and time will have to erase the entire June family to repair the damage this murderer has done.”
Inspector Green and his partner exchanged confused glances then stared at Leo where he slumped against Zeta’s empty chair.
Cognis plugged himself back into the machinery, and the holographic screen reappeared. It showed mother sitting at her desk in her laboratory. She was reading something on a data-pad. A smart-glass model of Saturn sat on the shelf behind her.
A shadowy figure glided forward, picking up Saturn without making a sound and smashing it across the back of mother’s head. Saturn’s rings shattered. Mother cried out in pain. Her attacker brought the glass orb down on mother’s head again and again, savagely beating her until her skull cracked and blood gushed over her desk and across the floor.
In the struggle, the desk tipped over. Mother’s body fell facedown beside it. The murderer dropped what remained of the model planet, and it broke into tiny fragments.
Leo expected to see an older version of himself step into the light. Instead, it was a woman. She stood over her victim, her lips curved into a disfigured smile.
“Okay,” she said. “You can interview me now.”
The camera zoomed in. The murderess had a thin, emaciated face. Her eyes were green like father’s, her hair long and straight like Aurora’s, and the shape of her nose and jaw looked like mother’s.
“My name,” she said, “is Eliza June.” She pronounced the June name like something vile and filthy. “This woman,” she added, nudging mother’s corpse with her foot, “was my beloved grandmother.”
In the recording, Talie asked, “Why did you kill her?”
Eliza turned her grandmother’s chair upright and collapsed into it, folding her hands behind her head and chuckling at what she’d done.