Though she knew in advance what to expect, nothing could prepare Helena for actually seeing them in the flesh.
“So, what do you think?” asked the curator.
“Wow,” she replied. An unimpressive response, but it was all Helena could come up with. Her brain was too busy processing what she saw.
Twelve vertical glass cylinders were arranged in a semi-circle in the center of the room. Each was ten feet tall, five feet in diameter, and filled with a transparent gel. Ordinarily, that would have been interesting on its own, but what captivated Helena were the cylinders’ contents. Eleven of them held a living person, naked and suspended in the gel as though in utero. The twelfth was empty.
“Breathtaking, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they certainly are.” Helena tried to regain her composure and act like this was a perfectly normal sight.
Looking more closely at the cylinders, she noticed that each stood on a chrome base about a foot high.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The base holds life support and stasis control,” the curator responded. “The gel is continually oxygenated and suffused with nutrients to sustain the occupants. And the stasis control system keeps the subjects in a state of suspended animation.”
“For how long?”
“That depends. This exhibit is a fundraising vehicle for the museum and quite a successful one. The duration of stasis varies depending on how much money is raised. Of course, our patrons don’t have infinite wealth, so the typical duration is anywhere from several days to six weeks.”
“How much money are we talking?” asked Helena.
“$50,000 per week. The subjects receive a 10% cut of the money raised.”
“Hmm,” thought Helena out loud. “So that’s $5,000 a week. Not bad for just hanging around.” She looked at the empty cylinder. A rolling set of stairs sat next to it. “I assume that one is mine?”
“Quite right. And it’s ready when you are.”
Helena took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Let’s do this.”
The curator smiled. “There’s a room in the back where you can disrobe. Just place your clothing and other items in the bin provided and meet me back here. I’ll prepare your cylinder.”
Helena nodded and tried to walk casually to the back room. Her heart was pounding, and she was starting to sweat. This opportunity was about to get very real. Backing out was not an option. The money was just too good to pass up. If the donors pledged enough to keep her in stasis for six weeks, she’d walk away with $30,000. Enough to pay off her student loans and finally be free.
She entered the back room and quickly disrobed. Helena figured the less time she had to think about it, the better. She dropped her purse and clothing in the bin, opened the door, and walked toward her cylinder.
The marble floor was cold, and the A/C blew cool air on her bare skin. She felt especially naked as she reached the cylinder. The curator looked up and smiled as Helena approached.
“That was fast.”
The curator nodded. “Good question. Well, let’s proceed then, shall we?” He gestured up the stairs. “After you, my dear.”
Helena gulped, forced a smile, and ascended the steps to a small platform at the top. The curator soon joined her.
“The first part is straightforward,” he began. “Just sit down on the platform and ease yourself into the gel. Hang onto the edge, and I’ll let you know what’s next.”
“All right,” said Helena.
She sat down and dipped her feet and lower legs into the gel. It was comfortably warm. With her heart still pounding, she gripped the edge and lowered herself into the gel up to her neck.
“Very good, dear,” he said. “Now comes the hard part. This is rather unpleasant for some but necessary to be ready for stasis. I need you to let go of the edge, fully submerge yourself, and breathe in the gel. It’s oxygenated and designed to maintain cellular respiration, so you’ll reach equilibrium within about fifteen seconds.”
Helena gulped and started to sweat. “So, umm, I’m not going to drown?”
“Certainly not.” He gestured to the eleven occupied cylinders. “They’re all quite comfortable. You just need to trust me. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Helena lied. She wanted to clamber out of the giant test tube and run away from this science experiment but maintained her composure. “And what happens after that?”
“Oh, you’ll still be conscious in the gel. I won’t be able to talk to you, but you’ll see me through the glass. The next step will be to activate the stasis control system. I’ll add enough sedative to keep you in stasis until tomorrow’s auction. After that, it’ll be up to the donors.”
“A couple of weeks, right?” Helena asked. “That’s what I should expect?”
“More than likely. That’s been typical in past fundraisers.” He paused and furrowed his brow. “Though if someone with bottomless pockets likes you, then….”
“Oh, nevermind. We have a hard limit at six weeks, so that’s the absolute maximum time you’ll be in here. I promise.”
Helena took a few deep breaths to psyche herself up for her imminent non-drowning. This whole thing was insane, but the money would be transformative. She made up her mind. “See you around,” she said and let go of the edge.
She drifted downward until her body was submerged. As she neared the center of the tank, she reached neutral buoyancy and came to a stop. Helena felt weightless. It was an incredible sensation or would have been if she wasn’t terrified. Just breathe in the gel, he had said. It sounded simple enough but doing it was something else entirely. She opened her eyes and looked through the glass at the other subjects. They all seemed so tranquil. She could do this.
She opened her mouth and let the gel inside. Immediately, she started coughing and gagging as it filled her lungs. Helena tried to swim to the surface, but her limbs were too sluggish in the viscous fluid. She looked frantically for the curator. He was standing just outside, facing her and smiling. He waved.
She wanted to scream, but the gel had already filled her lungs. After a few more seconds, she realized that she was still conscious. She calmed down and stopped struggling. The gel coursed through her body, providing life-giving oxygen. She looked at the curator again. His wave had changed to a thumbs-up sign. She raised her hand and returned the gesture. Once Helena had fully relaxed, it was quite pleasant. Like a womb. Warm and peaceful.
The curator tapped a few times on his tablet, and Helena felt a brief chill as a colder blue liquid entered the cylinder and mixed with the gel. Ten seconds later, her eyes closed, and she joined the others in stasis.
The following evening the room was full of the museum’s wealthiest benefactors. They circulated among the cylinders, sipping champagne and examining the people floating peacefully inside. Living art, and breathtaking at that.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the curator announced from a podium next to Helena’s cylinder. “If you’ll join me in the front of the room, we’ll start tonight’s bidding.”
The well-heeled crowd converged in front of the curator.
“Thank you very much. We’ll start the proceedings with subject one at the far end. A lovely young blonde, so peaceful and beautiful. She looks so comfortable, doesn’t she? Like she wants to stay in there a while.”
“Two weeks,” said an older man.
“I have two weeks. Who wants to add to that?”
“One week,” said a woman toward the back.
“Thank you so much,” said the curator. “That’s three weeks so far. Who wants to add more time?”
“One week,” said a young woman in the front. “She does look peaceful.”
The curator smiled. “Indeed she does. That’s four weeks. Going once… going twice… done! Four weeks for subject one.”
He tapped on his tablet, and a small stream of blue liquid entered the woman’s cylinder from the base and dissipated in the gel.
“Next up is subject two. A strapping young man, if I may say so myself. Who wants to start?”
The bidding continued down the line of subjects. The patrons were feeling generous, and the stasis duration ranged from two to four weeks. Finally, they reached Helena’s cylinder.
“Our final specimen of the evening is subject twelve—the raven-haired beauty. Who wants to—”
“Six weeks,” said a voice from the back.
Everyone turned around and stared at the older woman who had just spoken. She casually took a sip of champagne and waited for the curator to respond.
“Uhh, wow,” he began. “Six weeks, eh? You’re certain about that?”
“Most definitely,” she replied.
“Then six weeks it is.”
The curator tapped on his tablet, and a streak of blue liquid mingled with the gel around Helena.
“Thank you all so much for joining us this evening. If our donors would be so good as to join me at the podium, I wish the rest of you a pleasant evening.”
The crowd dispersed as the donors came forward. Many large transactions ensued, and the museum received nearly $9 million in donations. The donors left one by one until the curator was alone with the woman who had bid on Helena.
“Thank you so much for your generous donation,” he said. “That’s $50,000 per day for six weeks… a total of $1.2 million.”
The older woman didn’t respond and strolled around Helena, viewing her from every angle. She drained her champagne, set the glass on the podium, and smiled at the curator.
“I have a proposition for you,” she announced.
The curator raised an eyebrow. “A proposition? I’m not sure I follow.”
“Like most people here this evening, I’m an art collector. I’ve acquired dozens of pieces over the years from around the world. Paintings, sculptures, original drawings by da Vinci. It’s a wonderful collection, but I realized it’s incomplete.”
“Incomplete? And what are you missing?”
The woman gestured toward Helena. “Her.”
The curator swallowed audibly. “Well, I’m sorry, but the subjects will be staying here at the museum for the duration of their appointed terms, and then they’ll be awakened. They’re not for sale, nor do I feel comfortable even discussing the—”
“One hundred million dollars.”
The curator choked and started coughing. “Oh, my goodness! You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I’m quite serious. Here’s how this is going to work. The museum will receive the $1.2 million I’ve pledged for six weeks of stasis. The rest of the hundred million will be wired to an offshore account for your enjoyment. I’ll take possession of the piece tonight. A truck is already waiting outside.”
The curator stopped coughing and started thinking. “If I agreed to this unorthodox transaction— and I’m not saying that I am—how would I explain her absence? People will expect her to be here for the full six weeks.”
“Family emergency,” the woman replied. “You had to revive her right away, and she rushed off to deal with the situation. Simple as that.”
The curator turned and looked at Helena, floating peacefully in the gel. He wondered how he could even consider this. It was lunacy! A woman’s freedom was at stake. Then he thought of the money. He made up his mind.
“And how long do you want her to remain in stasis?” he asked.
“Indefinitely, if possible. She is a highly-prized object of art. And art does not simply wake up and swim away. That would be quite unusual.”
“It certainly would be,” the curator agreed. “Highly unusual and, of course, unacceptable.” He couldn’t believe he was going along with this crazy scheme. “Fortunately, we can ensure that doesn’t happen.”
He paused for a moment and gazed at Helena. Then he smiled and started tapping on his tablet. He had to override the failsafe he had implemented to prevent this exact situation from ever happening. After a couple of minutes, he reached the final screen and set the stasis control system to the maximum. He tapped the button and looked up at the cylinder. Blue liquid erupted from the base, swirled around Helena, and quickly hid her from view.
After a full ten minutes, the blue finally dissipated. Helena didn’t look any different from her eleven counterparts, but the curator knew otherwise.
He turned to the woman. “The rate, as you know, is $50,000 per week. It’s beyond my power to change that. However, I’m willing to overlook the six-week maximum in your case. For $100 million, you have purchased two thousand weeks.” He smiled broadly. “That works out to about 38.5 years. I’m feeling generous tonight, so I rounded up to forever. Congratulations on your latest acquisition.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “And may I assume she’ll remain in her present state?”
“Indefinitely. The maximum dose for temporary stasis will keep a subject suspended for one year. Anything more than that will overwhelm the subject’s nervous system and make the condition irreversible and permanent. I just gave her ten times the maximum dose—just to be certain. One can’t be too careful in these matters.”
“My thoughts exactly.” The woman pulled out her phone, pressed a button, and raised it to her ear. “It’s done. You can retrieve her now.” She hung up and smiled. “Wonderful doing business with you.”
“Oh, most definitely.”
They both turned and admired the newly minted object of art. She looked stunning with her black hair floating in waves, a serene smile, and the lights illuminating her skin like an angel. The curator decided it would have been a shame to disturb such perfection. He was confident Helena would agree if he could ask her.
Copyright 2022 Emilia Vazquez
I spend a lot of time in museums wherever I go. While I appreciate landscapes and still lifes, my favorite subject is the human body. I love nude drawings, paintings, photographs, and statues of all sorts. One day, I started to think about the next logical artistic medium. And then it hit me: the actual humans could be the medium. What if people could float in stasis and be displayed as art? Who would volunteer to do that? And what could go wrong? After thinking about it for a while, I wrote this story.