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A Shameful Experiment: A Punishment Reverse Harem Romance by Emily Tilton – Sample

Prologue

“What the hell?” said a male voice behind Tilly Squires.

Oh, shit. They had seen her. Tilly looked around desperately from the place among the stanchions of the huge metal scaffold that she had thought might conceal her from the view of the security guards. Above her loomed the impossibly gigantic bulk of the rocket. In front of her was the back of what had to be some kind of cargo elevator, with a crawl space underneath.

“I see him,” another voice said, twenty feet or so away. The beam of a flashlight lanced out. It would find Tilly in seconds. She didn’t hesitate: she darted forward, crouched down, and crawled into the space under the elevator cab, wedging herself among the metal struts.

Almost immediately, an alarm went off, and Tilly felt absolutely certain they had detected her somehow, but then—much, much worse—the elevator started to rise. It rose, and rose, and rose.

Had the security men seen her? Though the possibility had terror in it, Tilly scrunched her eyes closed and focused on it instead of the wind whistling around her or the sickening feeling of going up higher than she thought she had probably ever been off the ground.

The elevator lurched. She had to open her eyes, but she instantly regretted it: below her, at a dizzying distance, the dark and the launch pad illuminated with klieg lights against the pre-dawn darkness. She forced her head to lift, and her eyes to look forward. Before her, more struts and then, over a gap of a few feet, some kind of metal ledge, and the shapes of crates.

The cargo bay. The fucking spaceship’s cargo bay.

She crawled forward, somehow. She jumped, somehow.

She scrambled into the crate-filled space, climbed a pile of crates, found one whose top she could pull off. She lowered herself into it with all the speed she could muster, and heard some very tinkly sounding breakage beneath her.

Tilly had no fucking idea what the thing—or maybe whole bunch of things, who could tell, now?—she had just smashed into a million pieces was supposed to do, on the space station in orbit around Saturn.

Won’t be doing it now, whatever it was. Was she supposed to feel regret? Wouldn’t regret be more appropriate for the dudes in the uniforms, with the Tasers, who had chased her into the struts on the underside of the elevator and forced her to take a terrifying open-air ride to the cargo bay of the Freedom’s Hope spaceship thingy, biting her tongue the whole three hundred feet to keep from screaming?

Nor had it taken less than all the courage Tilly had learned to muster, to scramble to the edge of the network of dirty metal struts to the place where she could make a death-defying leap across two feet of open air to the edge of the cargo bay door, her legs dangling over those same three hundred feet of open air with certain death on the hard concrete of the launch pad waiting below before Tilly could scramble inside. She had needed to call upon every ounce of the cool-headedness she had learned through practically a lifetime of dodging the relocation vans.

One such dodge—perhaps, in retrospect, in the wrong direction—had led Tilly inside the fence that enclosed the Freedom’s Hope launch site. The lights of two relocation vans had closed in. Such vans held contractors tasked by the government to pick up anyone who decided they wanted to avoid what Carly, the more experienced friend who had taught Tilly to live free, had called the military-industrial corporate-housing-complex racket.

Walking in a beautiful, warm twilight along a long stretch of road that she had risked because she felt like seeing the ocean, next to a chain-link fence that Tilly vaguely understood related to some government space thing, she had seen no cover. Inside the fence, poles with bright lights only added to the fairytale-like quality of the scene.

The vans, probably alerted to the presence of a vagrant by some asshole who had passed her in a corporate limo, had moved at their unmistakable, slow crawl along either side of the road, one ahead and one behind her. For a terrible moment despite her courage and her calm, Tilly had known, as an absolute certainty, that she would be picked up tonight and taken to a relocation center, to be consumed by the corporate-governmental complex that had finally gotten Carly just the previous month in Orlando. Sent somewhere horrible to do something ‘useful,’ as defined by the corporations who owned the country.

Then she had seen that the torrential downpour of a recent storm had worn a channel underneath the fence just to her right, and that the light standard that otherwise made concealment impossible with its brilliant glare might provide just enough cover for a slim nineteen-year-old girl. The vans had still been far enough away that they probably hadn’t caught sight of her yet. Tilly hadn’t even thought; she had just got down on her tummy and after a moment of panic that the channel wasn’t deep enough she had popped through on the other side, crawled to the light standard and stood up, heart pounding, with the thick metal between her and the eyes in the vans.

Once the taillights of the corporate fucks had receded, looking, Tilly thought, disappointed in their abashed red glow, she had decided to explore a little, the way she usually did when she had gained access to a new place like a subway system or a corporate-governmental space-place. She had not reckoned on dudes in uniforms with Tasers on their belts, shouting at her just as she had looked up to read the name on the tall spaceship thing: Freedom’s Hope.

Just before the dudes had started shouting, Tilly had remembered Carly arguing with a man about this spaceship, around a fire deep in the Everglades, a camp they had found and then abandoned when Carly had decided the people there had become too ‘corporate.’ Tilly hadn’t really minded the idea of a council so much: unlike Carly she didn’t view everything about the government and the corporations as pure evil. But Carly had saved Tilly’s ass so many times that the younger girl felt she had to go, as long as Carly wanted her as a free-living companion.

The conversation about Freedom’s Hope had gone pretty much along those lines: Tilly hadn’t known anything about it, so she had kept quiet, but the free-liver who had founded what he called Freedomtown in the swamp had been talking about how he was looking forward to watching the spaceship go up, because someday everyone would be able to escape the corporations and live in free colonies in space.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Carly had said. “You think the corporations don’t run the space program?”

Joe, who didn’t call himself mayor despite all the other residents of Freedomtown calling him that, had said in a calm voice, “Of course they do, but once there’s enough people with the tech—”

But Carly had interrupted him. “Don’t fucking fool yourself, man. They’ll never let go. I mean, look at how they control the lives of the astronauts. You saw where they’re not even allowed to have sex, right? Fourteen people—like, fine, fourteen hot guys and girls who have what it takes to make it in the space program—and no sex for two years. What the fuck?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe had said scornfully. “They’re willing to make that sacrifice because they’ve figured out that relationship drama doesn’t help anyone. I mean, look at you and me, girl. I know you’re not going to stay here, even though you know it’s best for you and Tilly. You only fucked me because you need an excuse to leave.”

Tilly had shifted uncomfortably on the log where she had been sitting. Carly talked about sex a lot—Carly had sex a lot. She had had sex with Joe the previous night. Tilly was a virgin, mostly because Carly had looked out for her and kept men from forcing themselves on Tilly in one way or another. “You’ll know when the time is right, kid,” Carly always said, but the problem was that Tilly had known, sometimes—and Carly had always steered her clear.

So as Tilly had looked up at the letters on the side of the enormous, sleek rocket ship, the words Freedom’s Hope had a strange sound in her mind. Fourteen hot guys and girls. No sex for two years.

Thank God the only attendants for whatever precious cargo Tilly had just smashed as she found a place to hide were robots. She thought she had seen a red light go on on the shiny inhuman top of one of the rolling multi-armed machines, as if it might have turned on a camera, but the light had gone out almost immediately. Tilly had enough brains to know that every inch of volume in this windowless box must be accounted for, and so she had found a crate with a lot of packing material and just basically smashed down both the packing material and the glass-enclosed contents—fifteen or twenty little scientific devices of some kind—and climbed in.

The robots were busy for an hour or two—Tilly could hear them. She listened to the whirring of their servos and the squeaking of their arms. She needed to plan how she would get out of here, at the last moment, on the last elevator down. The robots whirred and squeaked. She needed a plan. She needed…

A clang, and then a sort of quiet pop—pressurization?—brought Tilly back awake. Could she hear, faintly, the elevator starting up again? Was the sound receding?

Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Ohshitohshitohshit.

Chapter One

Freedom’s Hope, you are cleared for liftoff.”

Henry Smith, commander of the mission, bumped fists with Jenny Jones, his second in command. The dread of yet another aborted mission lifted from her chest.

“Ground control,” Henry said into his headset. “Does this mean the intruder problem has been resolved?”

“Affirmative, Freedom’s Hope. Security has located a vagrant in the compound and taken her into custody.”

“Roger that, mission control.” Henry glanced at the clock. “T minus ten minutes.”

“Thank God,” Jenny said. “I really didn’t want to have to get off this candle again.”

Henry laughed. “Even if it meant another night with whatever hot guy you’ve got staring wistfully up at us right now?” He changed his voice to mimic the sort of insipid young bro Jenny usually favored. “Godspeed, Colonel Jones… my cock already aches for you. I’ll keep it pure for your little pussy, I promise, because I know you won’t fuck anyone else for two years, you self-sacrificing princess of sweet astro-love.

Jenny tried to keep the smile off her face, but Henry knew her too well, and his imitation of Jenny’s favored type was too spot on: she grinned and chuckled.

“Not even for that,” she said. “Sam’s a nice guy, but I’m sure he’ll be fucking some girl racecar driver tomorrow.”

Henry’s mouth quirked into a smile as he shook his head in mock despair. “You really think you can last two years without fucking me?” he asked, inspecting the gauges for the millionth time. Something was off by a fraction in cargo bay three, but only a fraction—nothing to worry about.

“No sweat,” Jenny said. “You’re attractive, Commander, but you’re a little bossy, if you don’t mind my saying. And your cock’s got nothing on my space-boy.”

Henry laughed outright at that. Space-girls (and their counterparts, space-boys—operational name for both Self-Stimulation Relief Device or SSRD for short) had been issued to each of the fourteen members of the Freedom’s Hope crew: a high-quality, handheld fake vagina fashioned out of silicone in the former case; an intensely vibrating wand with optional fake-penis attachment in the latter.

“How would you know, fly-girl?” Henry asked archly, raising his eyebrow to Jenny as he lifted his gaze from the instrument panel.

“T minus three, Freedom’s Hope,” mission control cut in. “Let’s focus, please.”

“You really think we can make it two years, mission control?” Jenny asked, a laugh in her voice.

Freedom’s Hope, if you wanted to break out the SSRDs during liftoff, you’d be doing us a favor. You’re just there to watch us work, after all.”

“Ground control,” Henry said, experiencing just a bit of rancor at the reminder that even when they got into interplanetary space, mission control would still not only be calling the shots for his ship but also making them, by remote control, “you guys and gals are a bunch of assholes.” Then, “Engine check. Left engine.”

“Left engine go,” Jenny said, winking at him.

On the other side of the bulkhead, the remaining twelve members of the crew, all of them payload specialists, four each from the three corporations who had sponsored Freedom’s Hope, as they had sponsored Freedom’s New Chapter twenty years before, waited to ride the old-fashioned, if enormous, chemical rocket into space, where newer technology would take over. The unmanned Freedom’s New Chapter had put their destination in orbit around Saturn and stocked it with everything the fourteen astronauts aboard Freedom’s Hope would need to spend the year there projected by the mission: six months to Saturn with the new ion drive, one year trying to solve the gravity-drive problem at a safe distance from Earth, six months back to Earth.

Back to Earth. Home, and sex, thought Bill Foster, senior payload specialist of the Selecta team. Forty-two and resolutely single, Bill had given up a great deal in the dating department when he had volunteered for Freedom’s Hope. The aspirations of humanity—and of his descendants’ bank accounts—had called, though. Despite his failure to tie the knot he had a healthy number of children whom he loved dearly and for whom he intended to provide. Giving up sex for two years didn’t represent the ideal method of doing that, but Bill had a passion for physics even greater than his passion for dominating submissive girls.

And Selecta had already put the enormous incentive in his bank account, so that Bill didn’t have to worry about leaving his kids without support, if Freedom’s Hope went sideways.

He glanced from the clock at the front of the main cabin that read -1:27 over at his seatmate, Jack Adams, the wonder boy of the Selecta team. Just twenty-two and surfer handsome, Jack looked like he belonged on the beach and thanks to the CGSA—Corporate-Governmental Space Agency—training had the abs to match. No one who didn’t know Jack’s considerable scholarly output would suspect the power of the brain that lay behind the blue eyes. The only thing that kept Bill from envying his junior colleague the chance to change the world over the next two years in space and then come back to a long life of academic honors and—frankly—fantastic pussy was Jack’s frank and seemingly honest admiration for Bill.

“You okay?” Jack asked, as the engines started to rumble far beneath where they lay on their backs in their acceleration seats.

“You calling me old?” Bill asked, chuckling as he renewed an old joke. “Just thinking about how hard it’s going to be for a kid like you to have nothing but a space-girl for the next two years.”

“Ha,” Jack replied, pretending theatrically to find the matter amusing. “Think about your own needs, dude. Your SSRD has the same specs as mine.”

Bill laughed and looked around the cabin. Across the aisle sat their two Selecta colleagues, Janice Murphy and Amanda Miller, both in their early thirties and both quite lovely, especially when keeping Selecta’s gravity-drive prototype running smoothly. Bill had dated red-haired, busty Janice for a few weeks the previous year, but they had drifted apart thanks really to having different tastes in movies more than anything else. He had speculated about the blonde, petite Amanda, but she always seemed to be in some sort of friends-with-benefits thing with one guy or another.

Behind the Selecta row the four members of the Conocorp team, three men and a woman, all giving Bill’s team a run for their money in the looks department, sat talking to one another in voices barely audible over the growing roar and the rattle of Freedom’s Hope’s metal around them. In the last of the three rows of acceleration couches sat the team from Haller Corporation, all men, all hunky.

Commander Smith’s authoritative—and, Bill couldn’t help thinking, dominant—voice came on, over the headsets all the payload specialists wore.

“That’s ignition, folks,” he said, rather needlessly given the way the cabin had started to shake. The calm in his voice couldn’t hurt the scientists’ and engineers’ mood, though, and Bill felt grateful for Henry’s leadership. He had gotten his crew through the soul-sucking tedium of three scrubbed missions, and he would get them to Saturn, now. A cheer went through the payload specialists. “See you on the other side,” the commander added, and then cut his mic.

Jack chuckled; Bill couldn’t hear it over the rocket noise, but he could see the laughter in his friend’s face. “I just hope I go straight from my blackout to REM sleep. I’d like some of that right about now.” Jack practically shouted the words to be heard; liftoff couldn’t be more than a few seconds away.

Bill smiled. He didn’t look forward to the loss of consciousness he would almost certainly experience in a few moments—as an alpha-ish sort of guy he liked to be in control, and blacking out represented pretty much the ultimate loss of the ability to self-govern mind and body. But the astronaut training had prepared him and his fellow payload specialists so thoroughly that he also didn’t have any doubt he’d wake up refreshed and ready to enjoy six months in a cramped spacecraft.

The clock ticked down from -0:01 to 0:00. Nothing changed with the rumble and the roar of course, since the chemicals in the rocket were just going to do what they had been put in their tanks to do and had already started doing: hurl this piece of metal, flesh, and delicate instruments into the sky. Another cheer went up in the cabin, though.

The clock went to 0:01: they must be airborne now—physics demanded it.

0:02. The rocket engines were overcoming inertia. It would happen soon, Bill knew. He could feel a bit of acceleration now, and from what CGSA said, this rocket didn’t mess around—they would hit eight gees within ten seconds, and stay there for a minute—enough to send even the pilots to dreamland while ground control managed Freedom’s Hope into high orbit.

“Jesus,” he heard someone from the Haller team say as the clock hit 0:05. Bill couldn’t have spoken, he thought. Despite his g-suit, designed (he had been informed) to prevent discomfort, things didn’t feel good in his body: ten tons of weight on his chest seemed a good rough estimate. Looking to the side, he saw that Jack had already blacked out, his head lolling a little to the side.

Bill thought about the crate in the corner of cargo bay three. They had run that thing through a g-force simulator that took it to thirty gees. They had done that four times, with a representative of each corporate team present, a different representative each time, so that all twelve payload specialists could verify that the ridiculously redundant contents of the crate would survive the trip into orbit.

Thirty-six gravity manipulators, their lovely, delicate mesh of rare-earth metals suspended precisely in a sphere of all-too-breakable glass, each one tested ten times to ensure that the intricate manufacturing process had left no flaw. Each team would need only one to conduct their company’s gravity-drive experiments, and the things were despite their basic fragility fairly durable once placed where they belonged in the apparatus that powered them and measured their effects.

No worries, Bill thought, the entire world seeming to shake around him. No worries.

0:06. Ten tons seemed to become twenty. No worries.

0:07. No worries. Twenty became thirty, on the Bill Foster scale of chest-weight estimation, a thought that made him smile slightly despite the fact that his muscles didn’t want to move at all. The gravity manipulators would be fine, though. No worries. No…

Henry woke up from the blackout to see a black velvet curtain spangled with impossibly bright stars outside the windshield of Freedom’s Hope.

Windshield, ha. Solar windshield now. A thrill of joy went through his chest. It was only his second time in space, and his first time in command. He glanced at the instruments, noticed Jenny was still out, and spoke into his headset.

“Ground control, Freedom’s Hope. Things look mighty fine up here.”

Henry smiled at the muffled cheer he heard coming from Houston.

“What?” Jenny said, coming awake and looking at him. She smiled like a little kid when she felt the way she moved as she turned her head in the weightless conditions. Henry couldn’t help returning the silly, happy look.

Zero-g. So fun. For an hour or so anyway.

Freedom’s Hope, mission control. You look mighty fine to us from down here. Stand by for ion drive switch on.”

“You going to let me flip the switch, Houston?” Henry looked at it, dead center on her console, a little greedily. Ground control could do it from their end, of course, if necessary, but a pilot had his pride.

“You bet, Commander. Just be sure to do it when we tell you.”

Jenny laughed at that. “Don’t worry, mission control,” she said. “I’ve got that covered.”

The voice of the mission control chief got more serious. “Ion minus two, so stay sharp, please, Commander.”

“Sure am,” Henry replied. If they missed ion activation at the Lagrange point that would let them head straight for Saturn, it would be massively time-consuming and dangerously resource-wasting to get back to it.

“Um, Henry?” Jenny suddenly said, in a voice so uncharacteristic of her that he whipped his head around to look. She was gazing at a video screen that showed the view from a camera in cargo bay three.

“Holy shit,” Henry said. “Houston, we have a problem.”

Chapter Two

Tilly couldn’t get used to floating. She knew she should probably be focusing on some of the other elements of—apparently—having stowed away on a mission to outer space. The way she had woken up, though, maybe since it seemed so, well, magical, occupied her full attention.

She had come back to the world, from whatever kind of fainting spell she had mercifully undergone when it had felt like the air itself was crushing her, still in the crate whose contents and intricate packing material she had crushed to make room for her body, but with a strange difference. When she moved a little, raised herself a bit, she flew or floated or whatever into the air.

Zero gravity? Had she heard someone say something once, or snuck into a movie with Carly, or something, that had given her the term for what had befallen her? She kind of wanted to throw up and kind of wanted to do somersaults in the limited overhead space above the crates that occupied a good three-quarters of the available space in the cargo bay. A new noise started up, in place of the silence that must have begun when the nearly unbearable rocket roar had ceased, sometime while she had been unconscious. This sound resembled nothing as much as the sound of ocean surf, and it made Tilly’s brow crease as she tried to figure out what the deep, vibrating noise might be.

All of that lasted only long enough—two minutes, maybe?—for Tilly to start to wonder what would come next, and how much trouble she had gotten herself into. Judging from the tone of the voice that came over some sort of public-address speaker in the ceiling, the answer began with a fuckton and didn’t have an end anywhere on this side of the horizon.

“This is Commander Smith. I’m talking to the person in cargo bay three.”

Tilly looked around, her head moving in a completely involuntary quest to see if she could figure out which cargo bay she was in, as if there could exist any doubt that the voice had addressed her. She realized as the fright in her tummy and the heat in her face made her whole body feel even stranger than the lack of gravity had that if the commander had a camera trained on her, she must have just executed a truly theatrical who, me? without intending it at all.

That made the fear and the embarrassment worse, and the fact that her head motion had caused Tilly’s whole body to corkscrew in air made her feel both incredibly foolish and incredibly nauseous.

“Well,” the commander said, without any amusement, “if we didn’t already know you’re not an astronaut, young lady, we could figure it out pretty easily.”

Now Tilly tried to steady herself against a metal wall so that she could find the camera, but ended up pin-balling off, still spinning, toward the ceiling, bumping into piled crates along the way.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel very well,” said the voice of the commander, seeming to take a little pity on Tilly. “Do your best to get wedged in the corner, and then focus your eyes on the opposite corner. That should help.”

Tilly felt a little surge of gratitude at the bit of help from the voice on the speaker. As she managed to obey, though and bounced herself off a crate into an upper corner of the bay—based on the surface she had to call the floor because the crates were strapped down to it—she felt a little defiance awaken inside her. He probably just wants to make sure I don’t ralph all over their precious cargo.

Then Tilly remembered what she had done to a crate full of that precious cargo, and her tummy fluttered despite the nausea having subsided a little at the cessation of her body’s wayward motion.

She saw that she had come practically up against a sort of semi-transparent plastic dome placed in the ceiling, about as big as her hand. Inside the dome a red light shone from some kind of small apparatus—the camera? Tilly stared into the reflective surface as she braced herself between a crate and the ninety-degree angle of the cargo bay wall and ceiling.

When the commander’s voice spoke again, Tilly could turn her head and find the speaker, behind a white grille only a few feet away from the dome.

“You’re in a great deal of trouble, young lady. Do you talk?”

Tilly frowned, trying to figure out at first what the question even meant. Then, “Talk about what?” she managed, her voice sounding hoarse and strange and echo-y in the metal upper reaches of the bay. Too late, she understood what the commander had actually meant by the question, and realized that just as her first response to the voice from the speaker had been what probably looked like a carefree who, me? her words would sound much more defiant than she meant them.

The commander’s voice got very stern, then, as if he were a person well used to keeping his temper in check, but Tilly’s presence on Freedom’s Hope was proving a challenge beyond any that he had ever faced before.

“I would think twice about sassing the person who could blow you out the cargo bay door, girl. You’ve already earned some serious consequences when we manage to get you into the crew cabin, above and beyond your now being a crewmember of Freedom’s Hope yourself, and about to spend the next two years in space with me.”

“What?” Tilly said, her jaw dropping and her grip on the crate letting go so that she floated away a little and had to scramble back by holding onto the rungs she suddenly noticed in the wall and ceiling that must be there for that very purpose.

Hey, I’m getting good at this, she thought, and then, with that little surge of confidence, the free-living style Carly had taught her took over a bit. They can’t do that! the independent home-spurning girl in her declared.

She looked at the camera. “You can’t do that! I’m… I’m not an astronaut! It’s not my fault your goons chased me into the elevator, and…”

That made her feel foolish. Yes, fine, it was totally her fault, but they had to take her back to Earth. She looked around the cargo bay from her perch on the ceiling ten feet above and caught sight of the crate where she had hidden and ridden out the liftoff.

“I smashed your stuff,” she said as calmly as she could, turning back to the camera dome. “Didn’t mean to, and I’m sorry, but I bet you have to go back to Earth anyway, so you can, I dunno, put me in space-jail at that place in Florida and then head back for Saturn.” The prospect of jail didn’t thrill her, but the only thing that Carly had taught Tilly to find remotely congenial about the corporate world in which most of the Americas and Europe lived these days was that prisons had become places to start a new life—a good thing even if that new life meant having a job.

The dome made a whirring sound. Tilly assumed it was trying to get a look at the crates, and she moved aside a little so that the commander could see what she had done to the one in the corner. Everything got very quiet, and stayed that way for almost a minute: Tilly could tell because she had just noticed a digital clock with red numbers that read 1:03:49.

A.m.? P.m.? she wondered idly, sure that she had won the argument and beginning to speculate on whether you could feel a spaceship turning around and heading for home. Maybe they had already pulled a U-turn.

Then, at 1:04:55, the commander’s voice spoke again from the speaker. “It’s going to take me a good long while to explain to you just how much trouble you’re in, young lady.”

Tilly felt like her spine had just received an injection of ice water or… didn’t spaceships use, like, liquid nitrogen that would freeze stuff in a millisecond or something?… yes, the feeling in her spine felt like liquid nitrogen, she decided. Somehow she knew just from the tone of the commander’s voice, even over the speaker, that she had misunderstood something very important about how space travel worked. Also that the stuff she had smashed probably was just as valuable as it sounded being crushed under her worn sneakers as Tilly had made room for herself in the crate.

“I’m…” she said. She meant to say I’m sorry, she thought, but she couldn’t get the words out. It wasn’t her fault! Those guys with Tasers… and the relocation vans… “Tilly,” she said. “I’m Tilly Squires. I’m… I’m nineteen.” With the repetition of her name and the supplement of her age she felt like her voice had gotten a little stronger. Commander Smith would never blow anyone out into space. Of course he wouldn’t. And what else could they do to her that might be worse than taking her to Saturn against her will?

“Well, Tilly Squires,” said the speaker, “you’re going to sit tight for a few hours while we make sure that Freedom’s Hope is running the way she should. Then we’re going to come get you.”

They came to fetch her through an airlock to the side of the bay that Tilly hadn’t even noticed. They brought a spacesuit for her, which made her feel like she was in a movie or something. The commander (the spacesuit said Cmdr Smith on a label under the golden helmet that Tilly couldn’t even see into) didn’t bother to talk to her, or maybe couldn’t, and didn’t take off his spacesuit. He just went to the crate, moving much more confidently in zero-g than Tilly and unstrapped it, while another astronaut, whose label said Col Jones pushed herself up toward Tilly, carrying the spare spacesuit.

After they had gotten her into the spacesuit, they went back through the airlock and Tilly really felt like she was in a movie then, because she couldn’t even get her head around the fact that she was in outer space instead of on a theme-park ride she and Carly had snuck onto or something. The stars were too bright, and the blackness was too… well, black. It didn’t seem real. Freedom’s Hope was just a long stretch of white metal as the Col Jones spacesuit tethered her to it and then bumped her along the side of the ship to another airlock.

What did seem real, though, were the faces of the men and women on the other side of that airlock, seated in strange, big seats with their belts fastened to keep them from drifting away. Their angry looks, especially when they saw the crate that Commander Smith had brought with him, made Tilly’s tummy do flip-flops.

Commander Smith took off his helmet first. Tilly felt her eyes go wide behind the glass of her own helmet when she saw how mad the man—really the very handsome, dark-brown-haired man—looked, chocolate eyes seeming to flare red with anger. A dozen other faces, at least, some male and some female, wore expressions just as irate as they looked from Tilly to the crates. When Colonel Jones started to unseal Tilly’s helmet, she wanted to beg her not to—maybe Tilly could ride in another compartment to Saturn or something, so she wouldn’t have to face these people.

It’s just stuff, she told herself. No one died. She gulped. Yet.

The helmet came off, and Tilly cowered into the bulk of the spacesuit, wishing now that it was a movie and not real life.

One of the men, an older one about forty, maybe, in a red jumpsuit—Tilly noticed now that there seemed to be three groups of them: red, yellow, and green—unbuckled himself and pushed forward to loom over her, holding himself in place with his hand on a ceiling rung. When he spoke, Tilly felt a little encouraged by the even tone of voice he maintained, but his words only made the butterflies in her tummy worse. Much worse.

“Tilly Squires, the commander said your name is. Well, Miss Squires, you seem to have managed to destroy our mission before we even left the ground. From the look of that crate, you crushed every gravity manipulator we brought. I’m not even going to mention the price tag, because I doubt you can count that high. What’s more important to me is that you’ve wasted two years of the lives of fourteen other people.”

Tilly swallowed hard. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She felt tears come into her eyes.

“Not as sorry as you’re going to be, very soon,” said Commander Smith grimly. “I’m a believer in old-fashioned discipline, though I can’t say I expected to have to use any on this mission. You’re a member of my crew, now, Miss Squires. Since we’ve just turned on the ion drive that will send us to Saturn, and orbital dynamics decree that we’re either going there where there’s food and oxygen waiting, or we’re going nowhere, we have a good deal of time on our hands, during which I intend to keep order on Freedom’s Hope. So you’re going to take off the pressure suit, and then the rest of your clothing. When you’re naked, Dr. Foster here is going to whip you in front of the rest of the crew.”

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