I fell asleep early but then the hydrocortisone wore off. In a haze of sleep I felt around in the tray by my pillow for the tube of ointment and rubbed some on my elbow, my forearm, my knuckle. I managed to get the top back on the tube before lying still again in the dark under my thin covers.
I woke again in a sweat, kicking around for a cool spot. I knocked something off the loft and heard it crack apart on the floor. I was resigned to just let it go when I heard a voice. “Should we lower the partition of privacy around her? Is she disturbing the others?” but no answer came. The speaker got distracted and wandered off.
Glossy white robots were sleeping in their white mesh chairs while tall creatures that resembled them, only fleshier, stood in white coats around carts of computers. It was like an office on moving day, either before or after the cubicle walls had been taken out. I couldn’t tell if they were coming or going. Could’ve been both. They looked like they didn’t really want to stay if they did just get here. They were worried.
“It seems to be affecting everybody. The itching, then the bumps appear. Then they stop itching after just a day, then another appears. But it’s not like a pox. They should all come at once and then fade together,” said one man to nobody in particular.
The others were tending to people on gurneys who all seemed to be just waking up, like me. They were confused and acting like typical loud Americans. A lot of them were finding out about the partition of privacy, which apparently was activated from the gurney itself, making a wall of darkness and quiet so the person inside could watch videos and nobody would care.
The random arrangement of the large white room grated on my sensibilities. There were no aisles, no rows. How could they get anything done like this? I got up and went over to the pensive man at the computer. I was relieved to see I was wearing a compatible white outfit. Just the same it was clear I was neither a robot or one of these aliens as I was easily a foot and a half shorter. I felt kind of rough and ruddy compared to these pale, smooth skinned creatures. Still, I was curious and wanted to know what was going on. “Hello,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, hello,” he said. “It just itches SO MUCH! Please, can you tell us what it is?”
“I wish I could,” I said. “It could be anything. Tell the whole story and let me see what I can figure out. When did you get here?”
“Just a few days ago,” he said. “We started exploring away from your civilization. We took samples of the plants and rocks and water. We observed the wild creatures for a while. After a day of that we moved to a small installation of human living quarters and collected some specimens. They didn’t do anything interesting to watch in the field. They stayed in such a limited area we thought we could easily observe them here without disturbing them. It appeared all they needed was the invisible electromagnetic signals and these devices to stimulate their eyes and ears. But then the itching....”
He turned back to the computer that had completed a task. It flashed up some results I assumed were negative based on his crestfallen expression. “Anyway we did a search to find a creature of intelligence who shared our symptoms in the hopes we could find out what this is. Please, what is it?!”
“Chiggers,” I said. “Setting aside the astronomical odds, you are, in fact, delicious. Apparently. You got them from the woods.”
“What? Where are they? We’re being EATEN? But we designed countermeasures for all pathogens!” He exclaimed.
“Apparently chiggers punched a hole in your defenses,” I pointed out obviously. “Chiggers are not bacteria or viruses. They are animals, with legs and everything. They are insidious in a whole different way than the microbes. They are too small for me to see with my eyes. And mine are likely able to focus much more closely than that multiple lens system you’ve got going on there. You’re going to have to use some of this technology to get a look at them. Have you got something like that?”
“Yes, of course. Let me retune the ship’s monitoring system. How big am I looking for?” he asked.
I snatched a hair out of my head and held it out. “Try from this size, up to about 10 times that size. 8 legs. Looks like a ghost crab.” He couldn’t care less what a ghost crab looks like. He stopped scratching at an unnameable joint to yank a drawer out of the cart and hold it out to me. I dropped the hair in. He jammed it back it the machine and twiddled around with some controls.
“You have to try not to scratch,” I told him. “It doesn’t help. It makes it itch worse.”
He ignored me but his focus on his search took his mind off scratching for a minute. He found chiggers. “Let’s go!” he exclaimed and grabbed the handle to the cart and ran off through the higgledy-piggledy mess of white office furniture and hospital drama set pieces. We went through a door to another room full of samples they’d collected. There was a big door open to the woods. There was a ramp down to the ground. I couldn’t help laughing. A ramp. There’s always a ramp. “It’s not funny!” he said miserably.
“Sorry,” I said. “Inside joke.”
He’d pulled the cart up to a bin containing a bunch of bracken fern dug up and wrapped in wet spanish moss. “Oh no, seriously? You poor bastards.” I said. “You didn’t stand a chance.” The cart beamed a bright light on the moss and a little pair of forceps and scissors reached out and snatched a piece of moss and disappeared inside the machine. As it started making noise my desperate itchy friend backed away from the samples and consulted a heat map on the screen to find an area to stand that was less intensely colored than the rest. Waiting made him want to scratch.
“You guys must have skin as thin as a middle aged woman. If their tiny mouth parts can reach through to the meat they inject an enzyme into your flesh. It dissolves the meat into a liquid that they suck up through a straw made of your own hardened tissue. The longer they sit there feeding the longer it takes to heal and the more it itches.” He was horrified. I could see the tension building in his... whatever they call that.... He leaned into the handle of the cart and spoke into it. “Clear the ground! All hands report to stations! Raise the ramp! Seal the ship!” he announced. All his people started scrambling to follow his instructions.
The computer cart went “Bing!” and we turned to look at it. There was a wireframe model of a chigger on the screen, rotating like an ad for a new car. It looked exactly like a ghost crab. The itchy stranger jabbed at it with his... appendage. Figures appeared at the intersections of the lines, and he fiddled with this and that and hit something that seemed to run a lot of macros. As judgmental as I was of their interior design sensibilities they were really efficient in their use of software.
“Let’s go!” he said again. We took off for the far side of the field lab and into a windowless room with noisy machinery not even aligned with the walls. That is so hard to deal with. He reached down to the bottom of a thing that looked like a white Coke machine and pulled out the trough where the cans drop. It was full of what looked like vermiculite. We ran back to the field lab. He asked his computer cart if the ship was sealed. Confirmed. He flung the tray of vermiculite stuff into the air. It came apart like a million tiny drone helicopters. “That should capture all the chiggers,” he said.
“Chiggercide!” I exclaimed, delighted.
He was already back at the computer. Doing that thing with the few choice decisions then a lot of other stuff happens. “Let’s go to the infirmary,” he said. He was making an effort not to run and not to scratch. He walked fast. We came to another room with another white vending machine in it. It dispensed a white tube. “Hydrocortisone?” I asked, hopefully.
“It’s a topical pain reliever, yes,” he said, “Specially formulated for the nefarious work of this foul beast.” He took off his white coat and started rubbing that elbow thing with cream. And then his knuckle, and his head stalk, and every other red welt with a ball of puss on it. He handed me the tube and I treated my own arms.
“Well now,” he said, finally able to relax a bit. “What kind of countermeasures can we come up with for these? Let me consult with my people. Please, come back to the main room and wait for me.” We went back into the hall of white Herman Miller Aeron chairs and I sat down next to a shiny plastic robot with her head down and her hands on her knees. She woke up with a start and looked at me. “Oh!” she said.
“Hi,” I answered.
“I’m sorry, I was startled by the nanobots. I’m being cleaned of foreign organisms,” she said. “What are these? What are they looking for? You’re the one we found to help the soft-bodies. Are they ok now?”
“I think they will be fine. They had chigger bites. And they kept getting more from messing around with the plants from the woods. They just have to heal,” I explained.
“Oh, that’s good. They were so distressed. I am programmed to feel itchy when I have a dry joint, but a little lubricating oil and the sensation is relieved. I felt so sorry for the soft bodies. They couldn’t get any relief,” she said. This was a very empathetic robot.
“There is no torment like it,” I stated matter-of-factly.
“I think they’re done with me now. They found some chiggers clinging to my less glossy parts. They were unable to get a purchase on my main outer coverings. That is useful,” she said hopefully.
We carried on a pleasant conversation, discussing ways to design a moveable frame that would have no part capable of providing traction to chiggers, ticks, or other unseen riders. The robots were supposed to do field work without carrying any species from one location to another. They were aware of the risk of invasive exotics. That’s why they were collecting specimens. They were studying ecology with actual control groups. It sounded like a giant endeavor. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. Applying technology to things with free will is complicated.
My original friend and his trusty cart rolled up to us soon. He handed me a locket on a chain. “Here. Wear this. It contains nanobots that will search and destroy any chiggers that get on your skin or clothes. There are a few kinds. The monitors form invisible rings around your wrists, ankles and other key points. If any chigger crosses the line the attack bots come out of the pendant to deal with them. Before you take off your clothes or shower you must squeeze the pendant to call the nanobots home so they won’t be washed away with the chiggers.”
“Thank you!” I said, “That’s fantastic!”
“Unfortunately our lack of preparation for the small scale creatures of your planet has made us rethink our exploration. We’re going to keep the plant samples we have and go back to our quarantined orbit to study this. We’re going to put back the people for now. When we have redesigned our countermeasures and have new field robots we may come back for more research,” my friend explained.
“Well it was nice to meet you! I’m glad I could help with the chiggers. These nanobots are going to make all of my dreams come true. Let me know if you need a consultant. I’m always looking for work,” I said.
“You too,” he said. “Thanks,” and he and his cart took off for the field lab again.
I rubbed some more ointment on a new itch as my robot friend escorted me back to one of the hospital props they had scattered all over the big room. I curled up on my side with my head on the pillow, trying not to scratch, wondering if my nanobots would last until the aliens came back the next time.
I woke up again early in the morning. My hydrocortisone had worn off. I drew a bath and added a packet of colloidal oatmeal and a few drops of lavender oil. As I soaked in the soothing waters I contemplated how I keep getting all these chigger bites on my arms. What have I been picking up that is covered in chiggers? I wish I had some technology to deal with this.
-- Author's Note --
This is my first short story about alien abduction. I actually had two dreams last night. This one with the good aliens who had the technology to stop the curse of chiggers, and another one with bad aliens who weaponized chiggers and used them to defeat all their enemies. I choose to repress that second version.