The Space Between Sneezes
Liz knew it was coming, and try as she might, she couldn’t stop it from happening. The silence of her isolated chamber was punctuated by a sudden “ACHOO!” which she thought, for a second, made the windows rattle. But they were reinforced plexiglass, several inches thick, so that wasn’t especially likely.
She blinked in confusion as the oddest feeling came over her—like her body was going limp, but still holding itself together somehow. She grabbed for one of the concrete walls, bracing herself, and when gasped for air.
Up above, a speaker ka-clicked to life, and she heard Henny prepare to speak and say—
“Don’t!” hissed Liz, vision spotting. “Don’t!”
“Sorry,” said Henny. “Habit.”
Liz fell to her knees, reaching under the bench and finding the steel case they’d left there for this exact situation. She entered the 10-digit passcode, flipped it open, and pulled the high tech goggles over her eyes. Her finger found the power button, and—
She tried again, but still nothing.
“Did we check the batteries recently?” she said, the strength in her voice fading.
“Uh...” said Henny. “I, uh... no?”
Liz threw the goggles across the room and slumped back, head lolling. “Please say you see it.”
Faint clicking sounds came from the speaker. Typing. The agonized sound of something squinting at a screen and trying to make out the shape of something that wasn’t really there.
“I don’t...” said Henny. “I mean it’s not...”
Liz rested her head against the wall. “Infra-red,” she whispered, feeling the last of her life draining away, like air out of a balloon.
“No, it’s just—WHOA!” said Henny. “Whoa, I see it! It’s there! I see it!”
Liz squinted up at the camera rig, at the top of the bunker. “Where?”
The lights in the room shut off, then came back on in a whole other spectrum. It took her a moment, but Liz was finally able to see, across the room from her, a kind of yellow cloud floating in the air. It was swirling and tumbling in on itself, like there was a fan blowing at it from the oddest angle. But that wasn’t possible, because the chamber was airtight, with no ventilation systems whatsoever. The closest thing Liz had to airflow was seeing the world outside the window—and even that was a view of another subterranean bunker.
The cloud hovered there, drifting toward the plexiglass like it was going to make a run for it...but never quite finished the approach. Then, without warning, it swooshed its way around the room, heading for the door—also sealed tight—where it paused again, like it was deciding which option it liked best.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Henny, as lasers and spectrometers and other instruments cycled through the room, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
“It is...” whispered Liz, eyes drifting closed.
“I never would have thought a soul would look like that,” said Henny. “But now that I see it, it seems just so... natural.”
“Hmm,” nodded Liz, slipping further into unconsciousness.
A faint beeping played out in her ear, and then a long tone—her heartbeat. She was dead. She could hear it happening, but couldn’t make herself do anything about it. And yet, she realized, she was still conscious. What an odd sensation, being dead and alive at once.
“Oh crap,” said Henny, slamming keys and adjusting her microphone. “Crap, you’re dying. Give me a second. Just want to get the residual radiation metrics before—”
Liz toppled sideways, and one of her eyes drifted open enough to see her soul-cloud whisping around looking for an exit. More urgently, too. Verging on frantic.
“Hurry,” she wheezed.
“Almost got it,” said Henny. “Alllllmost...”
The soul raced toward the window, smashing into it so hard the cloud exploded outward in all directions like a wave hitting the shore. The tendrils of the yellowish smoke coiled back around, ready to take another try.
“Got it!” laughed Henny, and then leaned into the mic very closely to say: “Bless you!”
The smoke twisted around at the sound of the words, like it was glaring at the speaker.
It did not, very notably, return to Liz’s body.
“Uhhh...” said Henny, tapping the microphone. “Is this thing on?”
“A... again...” said Liz.
“Bless you!” called Henny. “Bless you! Bless you! BLESSSSSS YOOOOOOOUUUU!”
Nothing. No reaction. If anything, the soul-cloud looked even more upset than before. It smashed into the plexiglass with full force, which was a pointless exercise because the thing had been made to with stricter standards than the space station, besides which a soul was not really a physical object that could—
Liz’s eyes, despite being dead, opened wide. She heard Henny’s gasp, too.
“Uhh,” said Henny. “Did I just hear a—”
The plexiglass was starting to crack. Spiderwebs of tension, coming apart, all along the edge where Liz’s soul had hit. It was still a long way from truly breaking, but not nearly far enough.
“Help...” Liz said, trying to point a finger at the cloud but finding the effort so incredibly exhausting she could only barely make her arm wiggle.
“OK OK OK,” said Henny, flipping through pages of instructions. “OK, so according to Fraunholder, if the soul gets more than five metres from you, you’ll actually die-die. So as long as we don’t—”
“Don’t... let... me... die...” Liz said, trying to drag herself closer to the window. It was very slow-going.
“I don’t understand!” Henny squeaked, flipping pages far too quickly to be reading. “They said this would work! I saw ‘bless you’ and the soul is forced back in! What’s going wrong?”
“Took... too... long...”
“Oh don’t start with me again!” Henny said, sounding hysterical. “There is absolutely no evidence that a soul becomes stale the longer it’s outside—”
Liz smacked her palm on the floor, pointed up at the cloud with a trembling arm. The closer she got to it, the more energy she had. But nowhere near enough to catch it. Not even close.
“OK,” said Henny, slamming the binder shut. “I’m coming in. I’ve got a containment unit, and—”
“No!” Liz gurgled. “It... will... escape...”
“Then what do you want me to do?” asked Henny. “I can’t leave you there! I’m not watching you die, Liz! That wasn’t part of the deal!”
Liz smiled at that thought. All this came down to a coin toss. She’d won the flip, and now she was going to die, watching her soul float above her as some kind of super-spectrum cloud of pink—
She frowned. The cloud was pink. Changing to purple. Cycling through colours.
“T-try...” she said, pushing herself directly under it. “Try other words...”
“What?” snapped Henny. “No, what?”
“N-not bless you,” said Liz. “Other languages.”
Henny’s frown was audible. “Why would it respond better to—”
“Right! Right! OK! Hold on!” She clicked furiously, mashing her keyboard so quickly it almost sounded like the plexiglass coming apart. “OK, so, uh: Gesundheit!”
The cloud flinched at that, again glaring at the speaker above.
“Closer...” said Liz. “Try more...”
“I can’t read half of these!” said Henny. “Uh... Ter... terveydeksi?”
The cloud jerked sideways, back away from the plexiglass. It looked very much like it had been burned by something. Or maybe that was just it cycling its colours back around to yellows and oranges and reds.
“Salute!” Henny shouted, and it snarled and pounded back into the plexiglass with a whole new ferocity. This time, Liz very much heard the sound of things breaking. Little shards of plastic sprayed down onto her, but she was too weak to shield herself.
“Kher be inshalla!” said Henny. “Gesondheet! Prosit! Uh...na zdravie!”
The soul-cloud whooshed downward, hovering right over Liz’s body trembling with palpable fury at the assault it found itself under. She closed her eyes out of something resembling fear, but realized she could still feel it, even if she couldn’t see where it was. It had a sharpness to it now. A threatening sharpness that it was—was this even possible?—about to stab straight through her.
“Hurry!” she cried, covering her head with her arms as the cloud wound back and got ready to shred her to pieces.
“Can’t read, can’t read, can’t read...ah!” Henny yelled, and then blurted out: “Alhamdulillah!”
The change was so sudden, Liz gasped for air. The cloud swirled and whirled around like it was caught in a cyclone, and then just as the room started to shudder with a deafening roar, the cyclone angled itself perfectly and injected itself straight back into Liz’s nose.
She convulsed back as the oddest sensation flooded through her body. She tumbled sideways, eyes watering as her hand caught the edge of the bench, searching for something to ground her as an avalanche of feelings crackled through her, giving her new insights she never thought possible.
“Liz?” called Henny, so close to the microphone now. “Liz? Did it work? Are you OK?”
Liz let out a gasp so loud, it made her ears pop. She rolled onto her stomach, curling into a ball, as her soul settled back where it belonged.
“I’m...” she wheezed. “I’m OK...”
“Are you, though?” asked Henny. “Because you look kinda not-OK.”
“I just need a minute,” said Liz, her ears crackling at the sound of Henny’s voice.
“Yeah, sure, totally understandable,” said Henny. “I mean, you did just have your soul try to leave you to die, so I guess that would be a little draining.”
“Henny...” Liz said, cradling her head in her hands as a splitting headache grew and grew and grew.
“I was just reading through the rest of the notes from Fraunholder, and he was saying that if the soul got free, it would start to mutate. I mean, in theory. That souls evolve faster than biological creatures, so basically in the space of an hour, it would be significantly more powerful than—”
“Henny... s-stop...” said Liz, feeling so ill she wasn’t sure she wanted to be alive anymore at all.
“Which I mean would explain why it didn’t respond to the basic commands anymore. It was learning to ignore the phrasing that would typically re-capture an escaped soul.”
“Which is why, I guess, Fraunholder was so insistent that souls either be left to escape, or re-contained within a short period of time, or else—”
“Henny!” Liz said, curling into such a tight ball that she felt like her bones might crack.
“But yeah, for future reference, the word that really gets these buggers is Bangla. For whatever reason, they really can’t stand the phrase ‘Alhamdulillah—”
Liz sat up straight, her eyes a changing storm of red, yellow, orange and purple, as the concrete around her rattled and started to come apart from an invisible energy somehow at her command, yet completely out of control.
“A-Alhamdulillah...?” Henny yelped.
Liz floated off the ground, and the roof of the bunker broke away, flying straight up through the complex and blowing a hole out to the sky. The cloud carried her upward, coursing through her body like a vengeful god.
“SILENCE!” she roared, and the shockwave flattened buildings for miles.
In her control centre, Henny watched the devastation through her own plexiglass window, and knew what she had to do.
She sprinkled pepper on her face and let the feeling build and build and build.
“There’s only one way to fight a monster,” she said, and spewed forth the one and only thing that—she prayed—could save humanity from the terror of the sneeze.
Written for Liz with the topic: “the whole soul-flying-out-of-your-body-when-you-sneeze thing”