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As Dr Perry pontificated, something terrible was taking shape in the back of Melanie's mind. Something so awful that she could not yet put it into words. The primitive instinct to survive made her begin to look towards the gallery door that they had all come through. It was still open and Melanie began to measure the her distance from it and to assess her chances of getting past Jim and Max, both of whom stood between her and the control room. Then there was the elevator to consider - it had needed a special key to descend to this level. Would it also require a key to travel back up?
Dr Perry was still talking, and clearly liked the sound of his own voice.
"Perhaps the single most important property of plastiglass…" he continued pompously "…it that it is hygroscopic. As the patient sweats the plastiglass absorbs the moisture, which then diffuses out across the block and evaporates from it's surface, removing heat in the process. We assist with a number of ventilated channels through the material and the low ambient temperature that we maintain within the facility.
Edward was listening intently to Dr Perry's discourse. The mention of the subject's perfect physical health prompted a question from him.
"What about her mental state?"
"Naturally the technique does cause considerable mental stress." replied Perry glibly. "The longest encasement we've had with a subject who was subsequently released was one month. That was with one of the young ladies you met upstairs. It was our final trial before we began full scale commercial operation and the girl showed significant emotional trauma as one might expect. "
"And life expectancy?"
"Theoretically, many decades…" replied Perry. "There are a number of factors we think will offset the emotional stress, and may even extend the natural life span. The subjects receive no UV light and have no exposure to pathogens. They receive perfectly balanced nutrition, with their body weight kept constant. We are also planning to use growth-hormone and melatonin supplementation as the years go by."
"So how long has this one been in there?" Asked Max.
"Let me show you…" replied Dr Perry, turning again to the computer console. He typed some more and then turned to his audience.
"Please look at the screen behind you." he instructed.
As Melanie, Steele and Max turned to look away from the girl in the slab, the dark panel on the wall opposite came to life. It was a very large display screen, showing letters and numbers picked out in red LEDs against a black background. Melanie's stomach churned as she read the data:
Melanie felt sour bile rise up in the back of her throat and for a moment thought she might vomit. It couldn't be true - could it? No-one could survive 2 years of such treatment. And yet Dr Perry appeared quite serious about the claim, and Edward was nodding in appreciation.
With a theatrical flourish Perry typed a further string of commands on the console and the remaining five plastiglass slabs in the gallery began to illuminate and rotate.
"Now let me introduce you to the rest of our little group." he said, clearly enjoying himself.
Within moments Melanie and the others were looking at a row of six young woman embedded in plastiglass. The screens on the left-hand wall of the gallery showed that the women were in order of incarceration. The first that they'd seen, nearest the door, was the earliest to be entombed while the sixth had been suffering for only 3 months.
Edward and Max walked between the woman admiring the view and clearly impressed. As they browsed they threw further questions to Dr Perry. Melanie was horrified to notice that , if she looked closely, she could see the eyes of the trapped women moving to follow their spectators. Somehow this confirmation that there were real live girls in this ghastly tomb was more frightening than a trace on a computer screen. Like the men, Melanie was struck by how similar the captives all looked. It was amazing how important hair proved to be in characterising a woman. Without it, one slim, naked young woman looked very much like another. Edward raised this point.
"Why are they all bald?" he asked.
Dr Perry let Jim answer this question.
"We found that with encapsulation in a solid material, hair was very troublesome…" he told them. "With nowhere to go it tends to in grow and cause irritation of the skin. The simplest thing was to remove it permanently. In many ways we've had to address the same problems as apply to the care of long-term coma patients."
"What about pressure sores?" asked Edward, who had more than a little medical knowledge of his own.
"The subjects are rotated on an hourly basis throughout the day," replied Jim, who had by now overcome his shyness. "The time spent upright, as you see them now, is balanced by periods lying face uppermost and face down."
As the group circulated between the monoliths and their female cargoes, Melanie took the opportunity to work her way closer to the door. Eventually she was standing near to first captive and none of the men were between her and the control room. As the conversation slackened Melanie took the risk of posing perhaps the most obvious question.
"Dr Perry…" she said tremulously, "…who are they?"
"I was wondering who would ask that." he said, instantly having the attention of the group. "To be honest I only know the identity of the lady by the door. The others we refer to only by codenames. They are ladies brought to us by clients who are willing to pay, very substantially, for their permanent storage. Our security department vets the client to make sure they are sound and creditworthy and that they have a legitimate interest in the young woman concerned. Our security people also handle the details of the subject's disappearance to make sure that neither the client nor HRL fall under any suspicion in the event that there is an investigation. In practice the police seldom investigate the disappearance of adults, so a few false leads is all that's required."
Melanie wanted to ask more, particularly about what constituted a `legitimate interest', but the knot of dread in the pit of her stomach told her that she might already know. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to screw up her courage to make a run for the lift.
Edward's next question made her pause and listen.
"Why do you know about the woman by the door?" he asked Dr Perry.
"She used to work here…" replied Perry. "…in fact she was the inspiration for the whole project. We were asked to come up with a way to subject her to long-term bondage, while maintaining her physical health. It was an interesting choice of subject because I understand she was quite severely claustrophobic. She was the Director's secretary and the word was that they had some kind of falling out…".
With this, all Melanie's nameless fears coalesced into an icy ball of terror in her guts and she turned to run for the door. As she did so she found her way barred by another of the white-coated technicians. She stopped dead, staring at the strange device he held in his hand, looking to her like a cross between a gun and a TV remote control. She heard Dr Perry's smarmy voice behind her.
"You're not leaving us are you Miss Jones. We had hoped you'd stay with us for a little longer…"
The strange device emitted a high pitched squeal and ejected two small projectiles, each trailing a fine wire. The tiny darts embedded themselves in the fabric of Melanie's jacket. She experienced a searing flash of pain and then blacked out.
Melanie awoke from a troubled sleep. She had been dreaming that she was back at Edward's house in that horrible metal box. Only this time, instead of just dumping her outside, his staff had buried her in the grounds. Somehow the mud had gotten into the casket and filled her mouth. She woke just as, in the nightmare, she had been trying to clear her mouth to scream. As she lay on her back looking upwards Melanie was relieved that it had only been a dream, though her mouth really was uncomfortably dry. The ceiling above her head was in darkness and instinctively she tried to turn her head to look at her bedside clock. Puzzlement grew in her still drowsy mind as her head refused to move. She tried to prop herself on her right elbow, but her arm also remained fixed in position. Panic supplanted puzzlement and she was instantly awake, desperately trying to rise, to move in any direction and to scream for help.
She stopped abruptly, frozen with terror, as she realised that her mouth was indeed filled. Something round and hard and foreign was occupying her mouth, pinning her tongue down to her lower jaw. Suddenly all the images came flooding back to her - the laboratory, those terrible slabs and the women trapped in them. Fighting for self-control she tried to move each of her hands and feet in turn. Nothing would move. Every attempt at movement met the same absolute resistance. As she focused on the sensations of different parts of her body she realised that her groin ached and that something large and unyielding had been inserted into her rectum. Clutching at straws she tried to think of any explanation other than the mind-shredding one that confronted her. Perhaps she'd been given a drug which had paralysed her muscles?? That would mean she was not restrained but just unable to move anything. Perhaps if she closed her eyes and opened them again it would all go away??
Melanie felt her eyelids snag as they began to close but were then prevented from doing so. In an instant she knew it was true. She was not paralysed. Her muscles were functioning, but her entire body was in total restraint. As the full horror of her situation struck her she began to heave desperately against her bondage, screaming Edward's name into her mouthpiece. After a few minutes she was exhausted by her futile struggles. She tried to gasp for air as a dreadful smothering heat engulfed her and perspiration sprang from her body. Each tortured breath she attempted was met by the immovable mass of the plastiglass confining her chest and opposing any attempt at expansion. As the monitoring equipment detected the rising lactic acid in her bloodstream it forced rapid shallow breaths into her lungs, each of which sent a stab of pain down into her abdomen as her internal organs were squeezed by her diaphragm.
Too exhausted to scream she now began to sob and plead for help, the restraint of her tongue reducing her efforts to meaningless noises. Surely Edward wouldn't leave her like this; she had meant something to him - hadn't she? Perhaps this was just a warning - a few hours constraint to persuade her to resume their relationship. If so, she would do whatever he asked - she'd go to live with him if that's what he wanted. Anything to be released from this private hell that she was now trapped in.
At that moment there was a jolt and Melanie felt her world begin to rotate. She was being moved to the upright position! This could only mean one thing - Edward had come to let her out! As the slab reached the vertical she was aware of a light above her head flickering on. Once her eyes adjusted to the strange distortions of the plastiglass block, Melanie found herself looking at Dr Perry and Edward Steele. Both were smiling at her. With sudden modesty Melanie realised that she must be naked like the other women she had seen. She flushed with shame and another wave of sweat broke from her pores. Dr Perry spoke first.
"Welcome back my dear." he said with mock sincerity. "The computer let us know you were awake and I see you've already tested the strength of your confinement. That's quite natural, but let me assure you that there is absolutely no possibility of escape. Plastiglass is incredibly strong and, as you've found, you will be unable to make even the slightest movement. Now I think Mr. Steele wanted to say something to you."
Edward stepped forward, a cruel smile on his lips.
"I want you to understand one thing Melanie - when I start a relationship with a woman, I decide when it ends. No woman has ever left me and none ever will. And now I'm afraid that our involvement is going to last a little longer than you had hoped - in fact I hope you appreciate the level of my commitment to you. I'm going to be paying for your care for the rest of your life. Of course if you outlive me - which is quite likely - my company will continue to fund your storage here, so you need have no worries on that score."
Perry once again took over the taunting of the captive.
"I realise that these developments must come as a considerable shock to you but I would ask you not to distress yourself too much. The sooner you come to terms with your situation the happier you will be. Judging by their brain activity most of our ladies find the first six months or so to be the most difficult. What you must understand is that you will be spending the rest of your life here with us, just as you are now. You will never again move, or speak, or eat, drink, or see anything beyond the inside of this chamber. On the plus side you are going to be enjoying the most extreme bondage that money can buy, and I understand from Mr. Steele that you took considerable pleasure in being restrained. "
Even through her terror Melanie flushed again at the thought of the two men discussing her sexual tastes.
"Now to more mundane matters…" continued Perry "…you will receive water and nutrients twice a day, injected directly into your stomach via the tubes in your mouthpiece. Your bowel will be washed out once per day and your urine and menstrual blood will drain as they form. You will also be subject to muscle stimulation at frequent intervals.. Of all these processes you will probably be aware of only the muscle stimulation and the colonic cleansing, which will cause a sensation of pressure in your abdomen. The chamber is usually in darkness, but from time to time each day lighting will be provided to help maintain your eyesight. Likewise you will occasionally hear white-noise played into your earphones to counter the effects of continual silence."
Perry's manner now switched again from grave to mocking.
"Before we go I must congratulate you on your delightful body. " he said leeringly. "All of my staff who worked to prepare you were quite enraptured. We could all appreciate why Mr. Steele was unwilling to lose you. Now, we always encourage our clients to keep in touch with loved ones who they have placed in storage at our facility and so we have arranged for Mr. Steele to visit you exactly a year from today. As that does rather leave you with some time on your hands…" both men smirked openly at Perry's cruel jibe, "…we will give you something to look at.".
Dr Perry typed something on the control console of Melanie's slab and the screen on the wall opposite her sprang into life. Through the blur of the crystal, and her own tears, Melanie read,
As she watched the 37 turned into 38.
The elevator doors opened and Dr Perry stepped into the control room. Accompanying him was David Sherman, the Chief Executive of HRL. On seeing their boss of bosses all of the technical staff jumped to their feet.
"Please, please…" said Sherman, spreading his hands in a placatory gesture. "sit down, relax…this is very much an informal visit." The flush on the cheeks of both Perry and Sherman suggested that they had enjoyed an excellent lunch.
"Today, as you know, is Dr Perry's last day with us." Sherman paused for the polite applause that followed. "We've just been upstairs doing the formalities and I certainly don't intend to repeat the speeches we've both just sat through."
There was a murmur of laughter around the small room. One of Dave Sherman's many skills was being able to connect with his audience and the control room staff were quickly put at their ease.
"I just wanted to come down here with Dr Perry to join with you, the folks who worked with him the most, to say the goodbyes that matter the most. I don't need remind you what his innovation and skill has allowed us to achieve here at HRL. Twenty years ago the concept of long-term human storage hardly existed as a science. Beyond the hospital bed or the prison cell there was no way of keeping the human body alive yet in suspension. With your able assistance Dr Perry has invented a new technology and a new paradigm in long-term care."
The applause was both spontaneous and heartfelt as Dr Perry's team expressed their very real respect for their mentor.
"Now I'd like to invite Dr Perry to join me on a last tour of the storage facility."
Once the chamber doors were opened the two men began to walk slowly through the galleries.
"You know you'd always be welcome if you wanted to come back and visit some time…" said Sherman after a few moments, "…you must feel quite attached to our ladies after all these years."
"Thank you, that's most kind. But, you know, I think I want to remember them just as they are today, perfect and beautiful."
"It's strange to think that most of these galleries didn't exist when you first started - there was just the single chamber. Do you have any special favourites among the girls?"
"Well, I've always had a special regard for number one, your predecessor's former secretary. It's coming up to seventeen years she's been down her."
As they spoke they headed toward the first gallery where the woman in question was stored.
"But even more than her…" continued Dr Perry, "I have to admit a soft spot for number seven."
The two men stopped in front of the seventh slab which, like all the others, was now illuminated.
"Why this one?" asked Sherman.
"I don't know really. I can remember the day she was brought in; so frightened and innocent, so lovely. It was one of the few times I actually felt sorry for what we had to do. I think her name was Melanie…"
"How long is it?" asked Sherman glancing over his shoulder to the data panel. "Fourteen years give or take…"
"She's kept wonderfully well, hardly different to the day we encapsulated her," said Perry admiringly. "The really amazing thing about her…she's stayed responsive for all these years. Most of them are catatonic after four or five years but her EEG is still near normal. You can still see her eyes follow you when you walk by…"
"Incredible…" breathed Sherman appreciatively. "Do you think she still has hopes of release?"
"I hope not, for her sake." said Perry. "Her sponsor died a couple of years back…sudden coronary."
"Are we still getting paid?" asked Sherman, a trifle less light-heartedly.
"Oh yes, no problems there. He'd set up a covenant when he first had her stored."
"Say something to her…" suggested Dave Sherman, now smiling again.
Dr Perry looked a little taken aback.
"We have a very strict policy about not interacting with our guests once they're established here..." he said, trying not to sound too pious, "…the lack of human contact is part of the experience."
"Well I think we can make an exception on your last day…go ahead speak to her."
Dr Perry typed the necessary commands on the console, secretly delighted at being able to indulge himself. When the microphone in the console was live he cleared his throat.
"Melanie, I know you can hear me. I'm Dr Perry. You met me the day you were brought here. You will also have seen me working in the chamber from time to time. I'd like you to move your eyes up and down if you understand "
To the fascination of the watching men, Melanie's eyes moved unmistakably.
"I'm afraid this is my last day here, so you won't be seeing me again."
Once more the eyes rolled.
"I have some bad news for you about the gentleman who brought you here. Alas, he died recently. You may also wish to know that you were declared legally dead some years ago."
The eyes stared fixedly ahead.