Like most scientists, Reed Richards considered himself very thorough when it came to tests. Barring extenuating circumstances, he would examine every possibility before he considered himself satisfied with the results. This held true whether he was developing something, examining something, or just observing something. So it stood to reason that, after the incident with the cosmic rays, he would have run every possible test he could think of to test the abilities of both himself and the others. Perhaps a few surprises would creep up here and there, but he was sure that he’d considered every important detail.
Also like most scientists, he had a tendency to ignore the more innocuous things and not include them in his testing. And as is so often true in life, it’s the innocuous things that can lead to the biggest surprises.
“Go to bed, Reed,” Sue said, half-exasperated, half-affectionately from the doorway, “You do this every time. What makes you think you’ll make the breakthrough this time?”
“Every little bit helps,” Reed answered, scrubbing a hand under his nose and adjusting the microscope, “And the more data I can gather, the more easy it is to spot patterns.”
“Can’t you just write down your various symptoms in a notebook in the comfort of your bed?” Sue asked, “You’ll get better much faster that way.”
“I’m willing to put up with a little discomfort in the name of science,” Reed said, scribbling down some notes, “And if I make any sort of contribution to the curing of the common cold, I’ll feel I’ve done humanity a service.”
“Yes, well, humanity’s not the one running a hundred degree fever right now. Get in bed or I’ll levitate you there, and I will not be gentle.”
Reed finally looked up from his microscope and grinned. “Very well, I concede defeat. But I expect plenty of TLC for my troubles.”
“You have my word.”
Reed got to his feet and swapped his white lab coat for a dark blue bathrobe. “Try some sort of fruit tea this time. I don’t know what effect that will have on my…my…”
He stopped in his tracks, quickly retracting a handkerchief from his bathrobe pocket and holding it over his nose and mouth. “Mmpsh!”
He kept his eyes closed for a minute, rubbing gingerly at his nose to get rid of any lingering tickles. When he opened them, the first thing he saw was that his eyes were level with the bay window. Which would have been fine, except that the bay window was close to the ceiling. Looking down, he realized that his legs, apparently of their own accord, had elongated, stopping just before he’d knocked his head on the ceiling. In the doorway, Sue was staring up at him, and he could spot her dropped jaw even from this distance. “Did…did you mean for that to happen?” she asked, as he slowly returned back to normal height.
“No,” he said, puzzled, “I wasn’t even aware it had happened. When did it…”
“When you sneezed,” Sue answered, “The second your head snapped forward, your legs shot up.”
Reed picked up his notes and headed for the doorway. “I have no explanation. This has never happened before.”
“I know I’m going to regret asking this, but…have you ever sneezed before? I mean, after the cosmic rays?”
“Of course I did,” Reed said almost indignantly, “After Doom froze me solid. Is it any wonder I caught cold after that?”
“Yes…” Sue still seemed unconvinced, “But he’d also zapped you with a ray and you’d been messing with your powers in that machine of yours. I think your body was still trying to reorient itself after that. So for all we know, this could be normal.”
“What possible value is there to stretching every time I sneeze? Surely the genetics couldn’t be that stupid.” Reed said, waving a hand dismissively. Even as he finished his sentence, though, his nose tickled again, and he barely had enough time to turn his head away from Sue. “Ishh!”
His knuckles smacked into something hard, and he opened his eyes to see the arm he’d been gesturing with was halfway across the room, stopped only by the wall. He retracted it gingerly and turned to Sue, who was biting her lip. “All right,” he said sheepishly, “It’s a hypothesis worth exploring.”
“Thank you,” Sue said, putting her hands on his back and pushing him towards the bedroom, “But it can wait until after you’re better. You’ll have to make do with notes for now.”
Reed certainly wasn’t idle while he was confined to bed. In addition to making notes on both his cold and the effects of his sneezing, he formulated a series of experiments to fully test the effects sneezing had on his powers. While there wasn’t a lot that made him sneeze, he needed to get it under control. One mistimed sneeze and he could injure someone he was rescuing, or allow a villain to get the upper hand.
So once his symptoms were reduced to a bit of sniffling and Sue allowed him out of bed, he was back in an antechamber of his lab, his tools spread out over the desk and his computer up and running, ready to record the details. “Is everything set up, Roberta?” he said, once he’d made sure there was nothing fragile in the room.
“Yes, Doctor Richards,” the computer said, “But you are sure that my keyboard and screen won’t be damaged by your…experiments?”
“They’re made out of tough, durable material. If nothing broke when Doom was in here, you should be fine.”
“I trust you, Doctor Richards,” she said, “But I’ll feel much more comfortable when you give me that body you promised. Then I’ll have a ‘hard copy’.”
Reed rolled his eyes. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you interface with JARVIS. Stark’s absurd sense of humor is rubbing off on you.”
“JARVIS was a perfect gentleman,” Roberta countered, “And at least he bought me dinner first.”
As intrigued as Reed was by the idea of two computers dating, this experiment took precedence. “I assure you, I’ll make sure creating a physical body for you is my top priority. But for now, let’s get these experiments done.”
“Yes, Doctor Richards. Video and audio recording is on. Where shall we begin?”
Reed considered the collection of items he’d spread out on the table. “We should probably look into the physical effects first, see what part of my brain activates, how my muscles react, that sort of thing. I’m heading into the CAT, I’ll patch you through.” As Roberta beeped her acknowledgement, Reed grabbed a feather from off the table and went into the next room.
When the CAT was switched on, Reed stood inside it, rocking nervously on the balls of his feet. There wasn’t a lot of space to move around in here, and if things went the way they had during his previous sneezes, something was going to get injured. “Are you recording, Roberta?”
“Confirmed, Doctor,” she said smoothly, “Go ahead.”
Reed took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and inserted the feather into his nose, wiggling it gently. He’d read in the various scientific journals that there was a spot in the human nose that, when touched, could trigger a sneeze. He’d never had cause to test it out until now, so he wasn’t at all sure what to expect.
As he moved the feather about, one of the soft barbs glided over something deep in the back of his nose, and the familiar tickling sensation sprang up almost immediately, causing a gasping, hitching breath. Before Reed could make a move to pull it out, the sensation became too much for him. “Heh-KSHH!”
His left arm smacked into the wall of the CAT, which was a bit of a problem, because A. it had been the arm he’d been using to wiggle the feather, and B. the feather was currently stuck firmly in place, that damn barb poking at his sensitive spot over and over again. “Ksshew! Iheshh! Igshhh! EHSHH!”
The good news was, the last sneeze finally ejected the feather. The bad news was, each sneeze had caused his other arm, both legs, and finally his neck to extend, leading to parts of him literally bouncing off the walls. By the time he caught his breath, he was crumpled in a heap on the floor of the CAT. “Are you all right, Doctor Richards?” Roberta asked, though there was a lightness in her tone that suggested she was trying hard not to laugh. He could only imagine what the recording looked like.
“Thankfully, my skin doesn’t bruise anymore,” he answered, gingerly getting to his feet, “Did you manage to record anything?”
“Plenty,” she confirmed, “I’m extrapolating on the results now.” Satisfied, Reed collected the feather (giving it a dirty look as he did so) and made his way back to the antechamber. Roberta was already displaying both the scans made of his brain and the recording of the incident by the time he arrived. He winced as he watched his body get tossed around like a ragdoll by the force of his sneezes; perhaps he should expand the CAT to allow for more room. Certainly it would make sense if he wanted to examine Ben in more detail…
“Doctor?” Roberta interrupted his train of thought, as lights blinked on his brain scans, “The results are in. As you can see, this segment of your brain lit up each time you sneezed, followed almost immediately by this one. I’ve examined the brain scans of various other humans, and determined that this is the famous ‘flight-or-flight’ response. Basically, your powers apparently perceive your sneezing as a threat.”
Reed nodded at the scans. “It’s logical, in a twisted sort of way. Is there any pattern to it?”
“Not that I can see. Each of your five sneezes fired off a different neuron. I believe that your powers sense a threat, but aren’t sure how to deal with it. So it’s basically firing off your body parts at random.”
Reed rubbed the bridge of his nose. “All right, so there’s no telling what’ll wind up shooting out. The question is, would anything retract?”
“There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Roberta said, and he could swear she sounded like she was teasing him. Maybe he should have toned it down somewhat when he was programming her to be personable…
Out loud, though, he said “Naturally.” and reached for one of the other objects on the table, a small pepper shaker. He needed to see if the various stimulii produced different results, though so far, it seemed like one sneeze was quite like another. “Cameras ready?” he asked, as he let his free hand stretch out to touch the opposite wall.
With a wince, Reed brought the pepper shaker under his nose and took a sharp breath. In seconds, he could feel a burning, tingling sensation all throughout his nose, nowhere near as insistent as the feather had been but promising a much larger release.
“Eh…ehh…ahh…” Finally, he was granted relief in the form of a particularly loud sneeze. “AH-HESHHH!!!”
There was a faint zip noise, and then it felt as if someone had wrenched his shoulder in the wrong direction, while his arm briefly went numb. Opening his eyes, he saw that his arm had returned to normal, though it still stung. “Well?” he asked, rubbing at his nose to try to get rid of the lingering burning feeling.
Roberta pulled up the footage of Reed’s arm shooting back into place. “Judging on the speed, I’d estimate it was travelling at about a hundred miles per hour…much like the speed of a sneeze.”
Reed massaged his sore shoulder. “And nothing stretched as I sneezed. All right, that’s something, at least. The ‘fight or flight’ response reverts solely to ‘flight’ if a part of my body is already stretched out. That’s still a problem, but much less of one.”
He paced the room for a minute, considering other possibilities. “I know from my experience during my cold that muffling it in tissues or handkerchief didn’t do anything to stop the effect. Trying to hold it back only resulted in a louder sneeze and a more dramatic stretch. But I didn’t try stifling it completely. Maybe that would do something.”
“Cameras are standing by, Doctor Richards.” Roberta said dutifully, while Reed turned to the table again. This time, he picked up a small bag filled with dust he’d had Ben collect for him while he’d been stuck in bed. While he’d never been directly allergic to dust, he knew from cleaning out his lab that a cloud of dust right in his face could set him off. With a nervous breath, he upended the bag over his head.
It took a little longer than the pepper had, but soon enough, he felt the familiar tickle. Dropping the bag, he pinched his nose shut and clenched his teeth, waiting for the sneeze. “Knnkt!”
He could tell something had happened, but he wasn’t entirely sure what. What he did know was that Roberta was making a series of beeping noises. Before he could open his eyes to see if she was malfunctioning, the noise actually registered with him; she was laughing. Each beep sounded suspiciously like a “ha”. He let go of his nose and glared up at her. “What’s so funny?”
“You…you…” another few beeps, “You’re a balloon!”
“I beg your pardon?”
Still laughing, Roberta brought up the footage. She hadn’t been joking; the second his head had dipped forward with the sneeze, his body, apparently responding to the excess air in his lungs, had responded by expanding outwards, until he’d roughly attained the dimensions of a human beach ball. He was honestly surprised his feet hadn’t left the ground. As he watched the screen, his body deflated back to normal as he exhaled. “Well then…” Reed began, then realized he was at a loss for words.
Roberta calmed down enough to ask “Are there any other tests you’d like to run, Doctor Richards?”
“No, not now. I need to think over everything. Besides, most of the tests I can think of involve combat, and we’re not equipped to record that just yet. File all the information we’ve gathered away.”
“Of course, Doctor.”
“Oh, and give the file an innocuous title, encrypt the data, and give it the same sort of protection I gave to the files regarding Ben, Sue, and Johnny’s powers.”
“You consider this information something enemies could use against you?”
“Yes,” Reed said, “Anything that could potentially incapacitate me is not something I want to be common knowledge.”
“Acknowledged, Doctor Richards,” Roberta said, “Though if I may, perhaps that last test offered up the solution of using you as a weapon. Just have Mr. Grimm roll you towards the enemy.”
Even as Reed rolled his eyes, he couldn’t help but smile a bit as Roberta started laughing again. “I’ll consider the possibility, Roberta. It’s part of my job as a scientist, after all.”