Stowaway

"Murvey, Alexandra. Identification number 4987012," she called out, identifying herself over transponder.

Alex sat back in her seat impatiently and stared out cockpit window across the endless void of stars and galaxies in the far-off distance while she floated in orbit along with the other vessels awaiting clearance. Customs was always awful no matter what planet you were checking into, but Earth was by far the worst. Never mind the sheer volume of thousands of ships arriving per day, easily three times as many as the next busiest world, Earth was also the political and economic capital of the Confederation of Interstellar Worlds, meaning customs inspections were extra thorough in their inspections to prevent unsavory known and unknown items from reaching the planet's surface.

"Greetings!" an overly chipper voice broke the silence.

Alex glanced up at the view screen just above the window to see a clean-cut, handsome model of a man in his late twenties smile at her.

"My name is Greg and I will be the virtual customs agent assisting you today!" he stated, still chipper. "Please upload your vessel's manifest and we will process momentarily!"

Alex groaned a bit as she opened up her keypad to upload the manifest to the database. It had been too long of a journey and it was too early in the morning to have to deal with this right now. These virtual agents didn't help improve the process much despite what the lawmakers who pushed it through thirty years ago would say. Sure, it cut down on smuggling and whatnot because who can bribe a computer? But at the same time, it put thousands out of work and the virtual agents were prone to malfunction. Yet, the lawmakers and the lobbyists remain insistent as they refuse due to either denial, greed, or a combination of both. Regardless, she sent the file as requested.

"Thank you, Alexandra!" the Greg the Bot replied. "Please wait!"

Alex feigned a smile back at it. The fact it was a bot was bad enough, but the company behind the bots, VallenCorp, decided it would help solitary freighter pilots by seeing a friendly face and a happy voice greet them from their long journey, thus making them happy and friendly. She had yet to meet a single pilot who was happy and friendly after interacting with these things. In fact, a year ago, VallenCorp gave them an upgrade to make the voice, appearance, and even the name unique to each pilot based on their preferences, though they never shied away from the clean-cut professional demeanor. Alex found this rather jarring her first run out with the upgraded virtual agents when she looked up at the screen to see the face and voice of her long-dead father welcoming her to Earth with a smile. VallenCorp toned it down after numerous complaints from the Union so now the virtual agents are subtler in their personalized appearance, meaning hers appeared to be a blend of her father along with her last three boyfriends because apparently that was what the algorithm decided to be a pleasant face to her.

A flash of light somewhere in the distance caught her eye for a brief moment, drawing attention from her thoughts. She'd been in this business long enough to know the cause: customs failure. In this regard, Earth differed from nearly every other world with how overly serious they take their customs, and it really boiled down to a series of interstellar pandemics having ravaged the world over the past few decades. In total, over a billion have died over the last fifty years and Earth's government wasn't taking any chances. They've since imposed extremely strict customs inspections on all vessels, personnel, and cargo coming to the planet. Any ship found with an undocumented alien lifeform onboard risked having their ship, cargo, and crew destroyed in space to avoid it making contact with anyone on the surface. Alex figured it was strict and harsh, but necessary, forcing pilots and shippers to ensure everything was up to snuff while preventing the spread of interstellar pandemics.

Another flash, this time to the right and much closer. Alex watched as the debris from a bulk freighter twice her size bounced harmlessly off her hull and cockpit. Careless crews, more than likely. She'd seen enough of it before to know more often than not the crew was to blame anytime their vessel was targeted for disposal. She had little remorse for them since careless crews often resulted in tighter regulations and longer orbital periods waiting to deliver cargo, making it harder for the rest of them that do take the job seriously.

"Attention Alexandra," Greg the Bot chimed in over the intercom. "You have been approved for customs inspection. Please proceed to checkpoint 1-2-5-DELTA at the coordinates we are sending you!"

Her dashboard flashed three sets of numbers which she fed into the navigation computer. The ship's engines roared to life as she broke from orbit and headed closer towards the planet. No need for manual control of the craft. The navigation computer was tied into the planetary Orbital Control Grid, which would guide the ship exactly where it needed to be while avoiding other spacecraft zooming around her. It was rare she would engage in manual controls. Why bother when programs were more efficient and reliable?

A few minutes later, she found herself arriving at the checkpoint matching the coordinates. Earth was now in full view of her cockpit window, looking down at what appeared to be Oceana, though it was difficult to see past the polluted gray cloud cover.

"Please upload manifest and customs identification!" Greg the Bot instructed.

Alex pulled up the requested documents and uploaded as requested. Outside, two drones had positioned themselves on both sides of her ship, holding it in place with two green luminous tractor beams. While she couldn't see it, she knew by now the OCG had gained access to the ship's computer, shuffling through every file, every code, every bit of information she had to offer. Within seconds, all ship functionality was firmly in control of the OCG and she was little more than a hitchhiker aboard her own ship.

These procedures always lasted a while and involved little input from her, so she took this opportunity to get out of her seat and stretch her arching limbs. With a yawn, she walked out of the cockpit back towards her living quarters, right towards the coffee maker.

"Coffee, black," she grumbled to the computer, prompting the coffee maker to spew a stream of steaming hot liquid into her well-traveled mug.

She glanced around the living quarters, waiting for the coffee to fill up. Nothing in particular drew her attention. Surrounding her bed, dining area, and two dresser drawers, little knick-knacks and souvenirs from other worlds were crammed into what little additional space there was available. Nothing much new to look at. Everything was basically the same as it was for the last thirteen days. Slightly unkept, but the same nonetheless.

Alex snapped out of her fatigued daze as the coffee maker sputtered its last drop, the fresh aroma of synthetically brewed coffee now filling the cabin.

Alarms blared as she reached for the coffee, drawing her attention away from the much-desired hot beverage and back over to the cockpit.

"The hell," she muttered to herself, glancing at the flashing red messages now appearing on every monitor. "Computer, silence alarm."

"Alarm silenced."

"Analyze," she barked, annoyed.

"Analyzing."

Alex sat back annoyed, waiting for the computer to do its analysis. Probably nothing. Slight hiccup in the connection between the ship and the OCG, throwing everything into panic mode.

Or, at least, that's what she thought until Greg appeared on her screen.

"Hello, Alexandra," he greeted. "We have noticed a slight anomaly in your vessel and are unable to complete customs procedures until this is resolved. Foreign biological entity detected. Please run a BioScan."

Probably just some random stray bacteria hitching itself on one of the containers in the cargo hold.

"Computer, run a BioScan," she repeated.

"BioScan commencing."

Alex sat back and waited for the results of the BioScan. Wasn't the first time this happened to her, though it didn't happen often. Pandemics, especially, prompted cargo companies to increase their sanitizing procedures to avoid shutdowns and destroyed cargo. Perhaps is wasn't as thorough as she thought.

"BioScan complete. No unregistered organisms," the computer stated.

Odd, she thought as she sat up in her chair to pour over the results. The computer was right; the only living organism on this ship was her.

"Greg," she called out over the radio, hating having to use a same for a bot, "uploading results of BioScan now."

She tapped the "enter" button and watched as it was uploaded to the OCG. Hopefully that would be enough. She wasn't keen on getting into a fight with the Customs Bots today.

"Alexandra," Greg the Bot replied. "BioScan results insufficient. One unidentified biological organism detected on your vessel. Please resolve."

She couldn't believe it. There was no way any unregistered organism could be on her ship.

"BioScan result not insufficient," Alex replied back to the Customs Bot. "Confirming, there are no unregistered biological organisms on this vessel."

"BioScan results insufficient," Greg the Bot repeated prompting her to groan with frustration. "Initiating Disinfection Pulse, power level ten percent in three… two… one…"

Before she can protest, a bright light flashed inside the cockpit and suddenly every inch of her skin stung like alcohol over an open wound. The pain was intense but fleeting as her emotions quickly transitioned from pain to anger over this sudden overreaction.

"What the hell?!" she shouted at the Bot.

They were supposed to give her a warning to put on a radiation suit before initiating the Disinfection Pulse, no matter the power intensity. Even at low power levels, it was enough to cause exposed skin to burn, eyes to be blinded, and the potential for far more deadly things to happen later on in life.

"Please run a BioScan," Greg the Bot repeated.

"Bot! That was a violation of Interstellar Customs Code 7823 Section A and I am noting it in my logs!"

Silence. She waited for the Bot to reply but he remained on the screen staring motionless, cool, and unsympathetic. It had to be a malfunction of some kind. Hopefully the techs were working on it. They couldn't just-

"Disinfection Pulse power level twenty percent activated in three… two… one…" Greg the Bot announced.

Alex dove for her living quarters to grab the radiation suit folded in her second drawer but was too late to avoid the Pulse. The flash filled the room and the burning returned, this time more intense. She winced and collapsed to the floor, tears streaming down her cheek as the burning sensation seeped deep into her skin. Not even the skin under her clothes were spared the pain this time around. She couldn't believe this was happening to her.

"Please run a BioScan," Greg the Bot repeated.

Alex tore through her dresser, searching for the radiation suit before another Disinfection Pulse was initiated.

"Disinfection Pulse power level thirty percent activating in three... two... one…"

Alex's hands traced the outline of the radiation suit but was too late. The flash of light sent her to the floor in an even more intense stinging pain. This one hurt even more, writhing as the burning sensation penetrated deeper into her skin and organs.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

This time, Alex wasn't fucking around. Any higher an intensity without protection would surely result in third degree burns or worse. Already, her skin was red and pink like she had a particularly bad day at the beach. Blisters had started to develop over the thinner parts of her skin, stinging like hell, though she counted herself lucky she still had nerves to feel the pain to begin with.

"Disinfection Pulse power level forty percent activating in three..."

This time, she was ready. She pulled out the radiation suit.

"Two…"

She unzipped it open.

"One…"

And slipped into the radiation suit, zipping up a split second before the Pulse activated.

This time, she was spared the intense heat and pain from the Pulse. The suit was designed to protect against a reactor leak from the engine's core, much stronger than radiation emitted from the Disinfection Pulse at its highest setting. They can run all the Pulses they want, she won't be affected.

Now, safely in her protective suit, she collapsed in her seat in the cockpit with a heavy sigh of relief.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"Shut the fuck up," she muttered.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

Alex sighed. "Computer, contact Devon Allas."

"Connecting."

Devon was one of the senior overseers working on the OCG over Earth and a good friend of hers. Clearly this was some kind of malfunction that would need a manual override. If anyone can fix this, he can.

"Connection terminated," the Computer stated.

"What?" Alex shook her head. "Redial."

"Communications off-line."

"Run a diagnostic!" she barked at the Computer.

"Hello, Alexandra!" the Greg the Bot greeted, coming back on the screen. "We noticed you attempted to make an outgoing call to an unauthorized party. It is against guidelines of the Interstellar Customs Codes to make contact with unauthorized parties during the customs process. If you wish to contact an authorized party, I will be happy to assist."

'Unauthorized party' she thought to herself. Devon oversees these damned bots. She should be able to contact him.

"Fine," she muttered before addressing the Bot directly. "Contact Senior Overseer Devon Allas of the OCG."

Greg's picture froze for a second, processing this request.

"Devon Allas is an unauthorized party. It is against guidelines of the Interstellar Customs Codes to make contact with unauthorized parties during the customs process. If you wish to contact an authorized party, I will be happy to assist," Greg the Bot repeated.

This wasn't making any sense to her. Maybe Devon doesn't work there anymore. It has been a few months since they've seen each other. Perhaps his boss could help.

"Greg, please contact Jai Modi, Director of Operations," Alex asked.

"Jai Modi is an unauthorized party. It is against guidelines of the Interstellar Customs Codes to make contact with unauthorized parties during the customs process. If you wish to contact an authorized party, I will be happy to assist," Greg the Bot repeated.

"Goddamnit, I just want to talk to a human being!" she screamed at the Bot. "Are there any human authorized parties I can speak to?!"

Greg the Bot took a moment to process her request.

Alex's hands started shaking from nerves, frustration, or some kind of combination of the two. She was completely at the mercy of this Bot, whom she had to comply with every request it made based on its own data, faulty or not. There was no negotiating with it. No way to contact its supervisor. Just her and the Bot.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

Alex slammed her fist on the console, spilling her irradiated coffee. She had no choice but to comply. Either her or the Bot had faulty information. She needed to know which was true.

"Computer, run a BioScan," she ordered.

"BioScan commencing."

Alex knew it was a waste of time. Now she was wondering how she could get out of this. She could go back and forth all she wants, but eventually the Bot will determine her vessel a threat and target it for disposal and it's game over for her when that happens. It is possible for her to stall, but that will only delay the inevitable. She knew there was no way any unregistered organisms were on this vessel.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"BioScan complete. One unregistered organism onboard."

Alex jumped in her seat and looked at the report. It wasn't possible. But, sure enough, as she read the report, there was in fact something else on the ship with her. And it was big. 1.5 meters in height. Approximate weight 52kg. Human, by the description.

A stowaway.

"Computer," she called out. "Locate unregistered organism."

"Scanning," the Computer replied. "Organism found. Location: Cargo Hold."

"Lock down access to the Cargo Hold and open a channel," Alex ordered as the video feed on the console indicated the doors to the Cargo Hold locked down. "Attention unauthorized passenger. You are unlawfully stowing aboard a registered cargo vessel. Identify yourself or we will take drastic action."

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"Shut up!" she yelled at the Bot as she waited from a response from the stowaway.

Alex waited for the stowaway to respond, staring at the video monitors for the Cargo Hold for the stowaway to identify itself. But there was no movement inside. Everything was still as the moment the cargo was loaded and sealed up. Even the audio monitors weren't picking anything up.

"Organism found," the Computer repeated. "Location: Living Quarters."

Alex was beside herself. The Cargo Hold was completely shut. How could it have gotten to the living quarters?! She switched the feed to the cameras in the Living Quarters. There was nothing.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"Where the hell is it?" she wondered aloud as she stared at the monitor, looking at the room exactly the same as she left it. There wasn't a soul in sight.

"Organism found," the Computer repeated. "Location: Galley."

Shit, she thought to herself as she quickly sealed shut the door the cockpit. The galley was only ten steps from the cockpit and she wasn't taking a chance on whoever it was coming into the cockpit.

"Greg, please call Customs Authorities!" she screamed at the Bot.

Greg the Bot paused for a moment, processing the request. "Customs Authorities are an unauthorized party. It is against guidelines of the Interstellar Customs Codes to make contact with unauthorized parties during the customs process. If you wish to contact an authorized party, I will be happy to assist."

"You fucker!" she screamed back at it. "Computer, initiate Disinfectant Pulse, level fifty percent."

"Acknowledged."

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"Disinfectant Pulse level fifty percent activating."

Alex shielded her eyes as the flash of light and radiation permeated throughout the ship. Like the other blasts, this only lasted a second, but the radiation level would be enough to cripple anyone without protection. She waited a moment and watched the video feeds for anything. No movement, no sound. Nothing.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated.

"Computer," she breathed, trying to collect herself. "Run a BioScan."

"Scanning," the Computer replied. "Organism found. Location: access hallway."

"Computer! Initiate Disinfectant Pulse, level one-hundred percent!" she called out frantically, hoping this would be the end of it.

"Disinfectant Pulse level one-hundred percent activating."

With a flash of light and heat, the Pulse once again flooded the inside of the ship. Alex was well insulated from the effects of the radiation, but the level was still intense enough for her to feel the heat penetrate through the protective layers. There was no way any biological creature can survive this.

With the Pulse complete, Alex jumped out of her chair and turned to the sealed entrance of the cockpit. She peered through the small porthole on the two-and-a-half-centimeter thick steel door, waiting for something to move past. Her hands shook and her heart raced as she looked through the tiny window, fully expecting to see something, anything, waiting for her out there. But there was nothing.

"Please run a BioScan," the Bot repeated. "This is your final request."

"Computer," she breathed. "Run diagnostics on BioScan and initiate new scan."

"Initiating."

Alex sighed and leaned back against hull, ready for this nightmare to be over. Hopefully, a successful BioScan will be the end of it and she can complete this job and move on with her life.

"BioScan Complete," the Computer announced. "Organism found. Location: cargo hold."

"Hello, Alexandra," Greg the Bot said. "You have sixty seconds to submit compliant BioScan results or your vessel will be targeted for disposal. Thank you!"

Alex screamed with frustrated anger and ran off for the cargo hold. The BioScans were useless. Something was being picked up but was invisible to the cameras, but maybe not the naked eye. If it were a person, maybe they were wearing a radiation suit like hers. That would be why they could survive the Pulse blasts. There was only one way to be sure. She had to go down to the cargo hold and see for herself.

She reached the entrance to the cargo hold and immediately threw the switch to open up the doors. Inside was still as a grave yard. Not one thing out of place. Still, she searched everywhere, covered every centimeter. But there was nothing to be found.

"BioScan Complete," the Computer announced. "Organism found. Location: living quarters."

Alex was out of the cargo hold and in the living quarters in a matter of seconds. She switched open the doors and ran inside, only to find it completely as she left it. She checked under the bed, in the shower, even in the tiny cupboards where no human can fit. There was no one there.

"Hello, Alexandra," Greg the Bot said. "You have thirty seconds to submit compliant BioScan results or your vessel will be targeted for disposal. Thank you!"

"BioScan Complete," the Computer announced. "Organism found. Location: cockpit."

Alex sprung to the cockpit in less than five seconds and stopped cold in her tracks when she finally saw it. There, in the cockpit, at the console, a distorted figure vaguely resembling a human sat in her seat. Her eyes grew wide and her breaths short as she stared in shock at what sat in her seat. The lifeform, whatever it was, sat in the chair, hands clasped together like it was silently praying.

Whatever this lifeform was, it did not react to her, even as Alex slowly entered the cockpit. Getting closer, she was able to see the being entering commands and pushing buttons on the console, though no commands were entered or buttons pressed. It was like a hologram or an apparition or something not tethered to the laws of this universe.

Then, as she was close enough to touch it, the being sprung from the seat and turned to face her. Alex stumbled back and tripped over her own feet as she recognized the face of the being. It was her. She was in agony, screaming, crying, pleading, but she was completely silent. There was no mistaking. This was her. A mirror image of everything up to and including the radiation suit she was currently wearing. And she was in distress.

The being then froze. A look of realization came over her. She then turned her gaze, locking eyes with Alex. Alex froze. She didn't know if this being could see her but it knew she was there.

Suddenly, the being flinched with a brief look of shock on her face, before vanishing completely into thin air.

Alex stood frozen in shock, unable to process what she just saw. She was completely at a loss for words. Never had she seen something like that before nor has anyone she known.

"Hello, Alexandra," Greg the Bot said. "You have ten seconds to submit compliant BioScan results or your vessel will be targeted for disposal. Thank you!"

"Computer, run a BioScan," she said. "Quickly!"

"Scanning."

Alex sat back in her chair, a little apprehensive, but quickly focusing on the task at hand.

"BioScan complete. No unregistered organisms," the computer confirmed.

"Great! Submit report to customs."

"Sending."

Alex held her breath as she anxiously waited for the report to be received, hoping they matched. Soon, she found her hands clasped together in front of her, held close to her face as she leaned forward in her seat. Sweat started dripping down her forehead. There was no room for error. If this did not work, she would face a fate similar to those cargo ships she saw destroyed earlier that day.

"Hello, Alexandra," Greg the Bot said. "We are sorry but your BioScan results cannot be accepted at this time, and your vessel has been regrettably targeted for disposal. We truly apologize for this inconvenience. Thank you!"

"Self-destruct sequence activated," the Computer announced. "T-minus thirty seconds to detonation."

"No, no, no, no!" Alex shouted, entering commands and pushing buttons on the console in an attempt to shut off the auto-destruct.

It was no use. Customs had overridden all commands and controls.

"Goddamnit!" Alex shouted. "There's no one here! Just me! It's just me! I'm the only one!"

"Self-destruct T-minus fifteen seconds."

Alex pushed back her chair, shouting. Pleading at the computer. Pleading at Greg the Bot. Pleading to anyone to shut off the auto destruct.

"Self-destruct T-minus ten seconds. Nine…"

It was then a wave of realization washed over her. Alex now knew exactly what that being was.

"Eight…"

Alex looked straight ahead, where she stood only one minute earlier.

"Seven…"

She squinted her eyes and could vaguely see the outline of someone staring back at her.

"Six…"

The outline started to form into a human shape.

"Five…"

It was undeniable now.

"Four…"

She knew that being well.

"Three…"

The outline fully formed into a radiation suit. Her future self, staring back at her past self.

"Two…"

It was her. It was always her.

"One…"