“We’re gonna get caught,” Miranda whispered. “Again.”
“Nah,” Skeeter said. He flicked his hair back from his eyes and peered down the silent corridor to their right. “I heard them say the Marines were on the other side of the ship.”
“Doesn’t that seem odd?”
“Maybe. All I know is we can get out and do something for a change. I’m tired of sitting in the cabin and listening to Dad and Mom argue about what life’s gonna be like when we get to this stupid place.”
“Mine are all happy and planning the new store,” she said. Following along with him, she edged into the corridor and they took off at a jog.
“At least that gives you something to look forward to. Dad’s making this whole thing sound like some horrible ordeal and Mom is telling him how it’s gonna be even worse. Last night I made it really bad, ‘cause I asked them if it was gonna be so bad, why did they sign up for it.”
They paused and looked both ways at a crossing hall before dashing further down the corridor.
“What did they say?”
“Dad said he did it to get away from Mom’s parents, and then Mom said it was because Dad’s a butthole. Then they started fighting and I ran off to my bunk thing.”
“Gara,” Miranda whispered. “That sucks.”
He paused, leaned against a wall, and pulled on the lapels of his long coat, sinking his body further into the leather. The black material created such a contrast with his snow white fur that Miranda could not help but smile.
“I’m used to it,” he said. His tone belied his words, but she accepted the words in the spirit he had delivered them. She placed a paw on his shoulder and looked into his eyes.
“It’ll get better,” she promised.
The fox nodded back at her and they started moving again. A voice from ahead set them on a hard right down an adjoining hall, and a choice between a dark hall and one with a flickering overhead light left them creeping down through the darkness. The journey, Skeeter had reasoned, was where the fun was to be had, and adventure would give them fond memories of the journey. Slinking down darkened hallways while avoiding the random security sweeps of the shipboard Marines was more than enough adventure for the pair.
At least he hoped they could avoid the Marines. Last time had not gone as planned, and had it not been for the ArCorp security representative that had come to their rescue, he had no idea what the musclebound Marine who caught them would have done to them, although his imagination had shown him a great number of nightmarish scenarios.
They traveled the network of corridors for a few more minutes, following the twisting halls and ducking through the iris door into a cargo hold.
As the door closed behind them the overhead lights came to life. White brilliance flooded the area and the cat and fox found themselves squinting in the sudden light. After the dim and occasionally dark hallways, the illumination was blinding and they found themselves standing and blinking in an attempt to ease the stabbing feeling of the bright light.
“Why did the lights all come on?” Miranda asked. She pushed herself closer to the fox as he looked around the area. He leaned into her as well, wrapping an arm over her in a protective gesture.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “They never did before.”
“Are we in the right place?”
He hesitated a moment, looking about for some form of identifying feature.
“Maybe we came in from the other side,” he said. The quiver in his stomach told him he had made the wrong choice coming in here, but he kept his voice calm and level. He resolved not to let any sign of fear show in front of Miranda.
“Probably,” she said. She took a slow breath. “Let’s look at this side, then.”
They stepped to their left, edging around a stacked rack of equipment crates. The tags on the ends were shiny and colorful in comparison to the drab gray containers. Yellow symbols were used to indicate categories of the crate, large red letters to identify the owners, and lines of black text beneath them. Each tag told the story of the crate contents.
This hold held little more than personal crates, and for that the pair was grateful. They had ventured into one kilometer-long bay early on the trip that had been filled with dozens of the shipping containers that held the contents of the colony to be, with house-sized boxes filled with preserved food, mining equipment, lumber, and more things that they could only guess. The infrastructure of an entire town was carried on this ship, and between Skeeter and Miranda, they had explored at least the exterior crates of most of it. The exploration took hours and they found it all incredibly dull. After that, they spent their days looking for something that might be fun. There were few Folk of their age, and none that wanted to do anything that involved sneaking off behind the backs of the security teams that were responsible for the safety of the colonists, potentially running from or tangling with shipboard Marines, and getting yelled at by the Administrators of the trip.
“What was that?” Skeeter asked aloud, jerking to a halt and doubling back a step. He peered down the alley between two sets of shelves.
“I thought I saw someone.”
“Don’t do that,” Miranda whispered.
“I’m not,” he said, knowing she thought he was playing a trick or trying to scare her. “Go back.”
The two of them sprinted for the door, but it cycled open before they got close and they darted down an alley of crates instead, pressing themselves against the closest boxes to disguise their presence.
“Why are the lights already on?” asked a voice. A second later, it boomed in volume.
“Who’s in here?” the voice demanded.
“Go,” Skeeter said in a low tone, gesturing down the aisle. He and Miranda ran hard, trying their best not to make sound on the metal flooring. They broke left at the first intersection, ran some more, and then shot up through another alley of crates, turning right and then left again as they ran. They could hear multiple sets of booted feet ringing on the floor as someone chased them.
They twisted left as they passed a series of low, wide crates, and ducked down low as they ran, trying to hide themselves behind the equipment. A few more steps and the pair found themselves facing an exit door, just down two more sections. They redoubled their efforts.
A dog clad in a long coat bearing some form of insignia stepped out in front of them. Dull rank pins gleamed on his collar, but Skeeter had no idea what they represented. All he knew was they had been caught for certain. There was something about the dog that terrified Skeeter, a feeling of dread that even overpowered his fear of being caught. His feet skidded on the deck as he tried to backpedal, grabbing at Miranda’s shoulder to help pull her along. His heartbeat became a steady flood of sound in his ears as he realized they were trapped. Moving with a long, slow stride, the dog was now in the section of crates with them, blocking their access to the intersection. He crouched low, shielding Miranda with his own body, and as the dog took another step, Skeeter squinted his eyes. The wall was visible through the Folk that stood before him. Skeeter gasped, feeling a cold sensation grasp at his innards.
The dog opened its mouth and a low, mournful sound drifted from it. Skeeter felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and a chill ran down his spine at the sound. Miranda whimpered aloud.
“Gann’s balls!” called the voice that had demanded to know who was in the hold. “It’s the ghost! The ghost of Shen Qi!”
“Where?” shouted another voice.
The dog looked down at Skeeter and Miranda as the pair huddled on the plating. His paw raised and he tapped it to his mouth in a gesture calling for silence. Pivoting, he moved from their position and out of the alley. It was only after he left that they realized he made no sound as he walked.
The thunder of booted feet ran down the adjoining alley.
“There! I see him!” shouted the second voice.
“He’s real!” called the next.
The dog stepped in front of the exit door that Skeeter could see and grinned at the two youths, lips rolling back from around long, sharp teeth. Extending an arm toward the door, he passed through it as if it was not there. His body seemed to shimmer as he joined with the metal, and a second later he was just gone.
Two Folk in ship’s security uniforms darted through the door a second later, stopping only long enough to open it. Neither looked at the two juvenile Folk shivering in the floor, so intent were they upon catching their prey.
The door closed behind them and Skeeter and Miranda found themselves alone in the cargo bay. It felt infinitely colder than it had when they arrived, and both of them were overcome with a strong desire to be somewhere else. Anywhere, it seemed, would do, so long as they were out of the cargo bay.
Three minutes of running led them back to the door by which they had entered and then they were running through the corridors of the ship, paw in paw. Doors and intersections flashed by as they worked their way back to the housing area.
They ran straight up to the ocelot wearing the sand camouflage shirt of the ArCorp security team. The trim female glared at their approach.
“Where have you two been?” she demanded.
“We went to the galley,” Miranda said, her voice high and firm. It was not a place that was off limits, and many of the settlers went there for a change of pace from the makeshift eatery set up in their area. “They had cookies.”
“Did you bring me a cookie?” asked the ocelot, mouth wide in a grin.
“I was going to, but Skeeter ate it,” Miranda said, pointing at her friend and making a face.
“Oh, I see! That’s how it is, is it?” she asked. She reached out and ruffled the fox’s carefully-coiffed hair, chuckling at the offended expression on his face.
Minutes later, they were back inside the confines of the section of the ship where the settlers had been based. They were both shaking with a combination of fear and excitement at their experience. They kept moving, hiding from the sight of others until they reached one of their usual places. Perched side by side on a bench in the common area, the two of them took deep breaths of the recycled air. They were still holding paws, and neither seemed in a hurry to stop.
“What was that?” Miranda asked. Her voice was husky now, edged with the fear brought about by her memories of what had occurred.
“Can spaceships be haunted?” Skeeter asked at the same time.
“We could ask Diem.”
After he had rescued the pair from the clutches of the enormous Marine, the leopard named Diem had become a favorite adult of theirs. Still, Skeeter had his doubts.
“And tell him we went to the cargo bay?” he asked.
“No,” she said, flapping a paw. “We just ask if it could happen. I’ll tell him you were telling me a ghost story and trying to scare me.”
“That might work.”
Miranda squeezed his paw. “After that, we go talk to someone from the ship. Tell them we overheard someone talking about a ghost. Play both sides.”
Nodding, he pulled the cat in for a quick hug. They got up and ran from the bench, heading for the lounge to see if Diem was there.
Behind them, a shimmering canine face materialized, pushing free from a bulkhead wall. It looked at the area filled with colonists and grinned before disappearing into the metal once again.