Chuck’s skin was itching.
It wasn’t painful, but it was insistent. His skin was itching and his teeth were starting to buzz. He’d walked from the clearing near what looked to be a library, along the remnants of a road, towards the cube buildings on his map. He’d been completely unmolested the entire way, although the local fauna kept a wary eye on him – an unknown species that could be a predator. But as he neared the structure, could see it jutting out of the landscape amongst the trees, he began to feel an unpleasant sensation.
There is a chill you get in your skin when you think about something distasteful or when someone runs a finger just above your skin. Chuck shuddered, and then shuddered again. He stopped and looked around. His skin began to prickle, starting at his neck and spreading across his face and down his back. He stopped walking at an unpleasant thought: what if he were being bombarded with radiation? He grabbed his tablet, swiped his fingers across the screen and brought up a radiation scanner. There was something in his vicinity, random pulses of energy, but nothing that could be considered harmful. He popped up a panel on the wrist of his landing suit. His gear wasn’t registering any harmful chemicals in the air. In fact, the air on an earth unsullied by humanity for a thousand years was incredibly pure.
Slightly nervous, but unable to come up with a reason to retreat, Chuck walked onwards, itchy and uncomfortable. Now, he could hear a tiny high-pitched squealing, just at the edge of his hearing. It wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t a creature. It was, he realised, the sound of data. Somewhere close, something was transmitting a good deal of data across a spectrum that his hearing could pick up. He looked up for no real reason and tapped the communicator on his chest.
‘Scout to orbiter, come in?’
‘Heya Chuck, what’s going on?’
‘We’ve got definite activity down here. No obvious signs of life, but a number of anomalies worth checking out. Plus, there’s some definite data chatter. Could anyone else be here?’
‘Nope. Uh uh, no way. Unless you believe in aliens, we are the first ship to come back to this sector of space since the Exodus.’
‘And we didn’t, you know, leave anyone behind when we left Earth the first time? Cos they’d be justifiably annoyed.’ Chuck took another look around, trying to think of a way he could be itched to death. There were a lot. He realised that Caitlin up on the ship hadn’t responded yet. ‘Cait?’
‘We-ell,’ came the voice in his ear, ‘Some people didn’t want to go. Certain religions, ridiculously optimistic people, complete nutjobs. We don’t generally tell people, but it’s here in the records.’
Chuck held his hand over his ear at the word ‘nutjobs’. He wasn’t sure if whoever was here could pick it up.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘So I could suddenly be attacked by lunatic proto-humans carrying clubs made up of recycled paper? And that wasn’t something you thought I needed to know.’
‘You worry too much Chuck,’ Caitlin said. ‘You were with me when I did the scans. There’s no sign of sentient life anywhere. None of the structures show signs of repair. There’s nothing there.’
‘Fair enough,’ Chuck said. ‘There’s nobody here. Two things: Firstly, What’s the data chatter that I can hear? I can’t capture it using the tablet, but I can hear it. Second, can you think of any way that someone can kill someone else in a way that would make their skin itch?’
‘There are plenty of ways to kill you with itchy skin. Poison, radiation, slow-working acid, killer nano-robots..’
‘You can stop helping now,’ Chuck said, scratching his neck. ‘And the data stream?’
‘No sign of it,’ came the voice from the ship. ‘There’s definitely some technology still active on the planet, which is strange after a thousand years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anybody still living there.’
‘Righto,’ Chuck said, ‘I’m heading to a bunch of energy anomalies I picked up on the tablet. I’ll let you know what I find out. Ciao!’
‘Sayonara,’ Caitlin said and the communicator bleeped out.
Chuck ignored the itching and his vibrating teeth and strode with purpose towards the square.