The Fourth Incident (or, Monetary Compensation)
By the time Esme rapped at his door, Viral's morning paper work had already devolved to doodles of ganmen.
"Open." He didn't look up until he finished the outlining the helmet, and his secretary was standing patiently in the threshold of his office.
"Just reminding you about your 10 o'clock appointment."
"Ah, I'll be down in a minute." He capped the pen and stretched backwards in his chair, arms over head.
Esme drifted out, only to pop her head back through the doorway a few breaths later. "I don't suppose you've seen my glasses anywhere?"
"They're on your head."
His secretary patted her hair and found the bifocals over the curl of her right horn. "Right where I left them." She laughed, making it into a joke even as spots of color rose in her cheeks.
Viral was aware of her discomfort and deflected the subject. "This meeting is going to last all day. I'll be gone, so why don't you take some time off?"
"If you're sure..."
He flashed her a hard smile, though almost all of his smiles were hard and by now she could identify this as one of his most friendly variants. "Unless you have any pressing business that needs finishing, I'll walk you out before I close the office."
She bowed. "Thank you, sir. I'll fetch my things."
Esme reappeared in the lobby with a poofy blazer draped over her shoulders. She took Viral's offered elbow, and he escorted her to the elevator, taking slow steps to match her pace. "All the background information is in the file by your door," she told him, "Oh! And you received a confirmation on the meeting with Yuzun for next week. I should have penciled it in earlier, but there's this new mail system. It's hard to figure out. I don't know..."
She sighed, confidence faltering. "I'm afraid I'm too old to be any use. I can't even remember where I put my glasses."
"Nonsense. We all forget things; that's why I need you, after all. No one else knows how to manage my office half as well, Esme."
"You don't have to lie. I know you're only keeping me around for my looks."
"Sharp as ever. I can't get anything past you," he winked and pushed a button to summon the lift. "Enjoy the rest of the day." She squeezed two of his fingers gratefully then stepped behind the sliding doors. Viral watched her disappear behind his own reflection in the burnished steel.
She was getting too old, but Viral didn't need the world's greatest secretary. She always tried her best. Besides, he liked having Esme around. Her being one of the few remaining beastman had more than a little to do with it, even though he was officially against species favoritism.
Viral returned to his office to grab the file and a few last-minute things before locking the door. Most of the staff had already left, and the floor was practically empty when he returned to catch another lift down. He selected the button for the ground level where there would be government transport waiting to carry him to the conference center. He wasn't looking forward to it.
The trouble with successful alliances was that he was very rarely required to maim anyone. He was, however, frequently required to attend 10 AM presentations by the Inter-Spiral Agriculture and Terraforming Fellowship. Not that ISATF wasn't important—the technicians and farmers made a point to constantly remind him otherwise—but as passionate as they could become over water disputes, an old-fashioned brawl was unlikely to erupt. Too bad, because the day ahead didn't promise much excitement.
In fact, he was getting tired just thinking about it. Viral leaned heavily against the wall. Maybe he could catch some rest on the shuttle ride over. He yawned, and the air seemed to have a peculiar taste. Odd. Something about it was bothering Viral, but he could ponder it later, after he'd had a little sleep. Sleep... why wait until he was on his way to the presentation? Viral was exhausted, and the elevator had slowed to an apparent crawl. At this rate there would be plenty of time for a nap before he reached the bottom. Even the floor must have been sympathetic, because it conveniently rose up to meet him.
There was a moment of clarity before Viral blacked out, and he had just enough time to think, Shit.
He heard gravel crunching under wheels.
There was the acrid smell of dust and gasoline, the vibration of a machine. Viral kept still as awareness filtered back and his senses returned. His mouth tasted like hell.
A heavy bump, like a tire going over a rut, jostled him, and a throbbing blossomed in his temples. Between the confusion and the headache, it took a moment for Viral to orient himself. He was sitting up, but everything was black. The darkness didn't change when he blinked a few times, and the air around his face felt hot and stuffy, leading him to conclude that there was something over his head.
That was a bad sign to wake up to, and each new piece of information predicted worse things to come. He silently prayed that the unnatural stiffness in his limbs was because they were still asleep. Viral tried to move his arms, but of course his wrists were tied together, so were his ankles. This was definitely neither the elevator nor official transport. As much as he hated to admit it, this little mystery had all the hallmarks of an abduction.
He couldn't believe this had happened again.
It was common knowledge that he was an unusual beastman, but the media usually downplayed that detail in favor of his diplomatic role. Which was how Viral preferred it, though he usually tried to avoid public attention altogether, and this was one of the reasons why.
Throughout his career he had received a small but steady trickle of contacts demanding that he reveal the secrets of invulnerability. As far as he knew there wasn't any secret, but since that wasn't a satisfying answer, one of the more extreme groups would occasionally try to capture him by force to satisfy their curiosity. Very occasionally, they would succeed.
The second time had been the worst. He'd had to endure their "research" for several days before being found, by which time it had become quite ... unpleasant. That was an exception, however. With a few crazies tending to pop up and threaten his autonomy, Viral learned to develop an eye for identifying and avoiding possible threats.
Even if an especially persistent immortality cult managed to slip through his defenses, a very angry beastman with no regard for personal safety is difficult to restrain for long. With his experience, successful kidnappings should have been a thing of the past. Yet, he'd never seen this one coming: incident number four.
Now his only thoughts were of escape. Viral took stock of his surroundings. He was bound, but not too severely; he was being transported somewhere on an unpaved road, and he could smell three—maybe more?—unfamiliar humans nearby.
Since he'd regained consciousness there hadn't been a word from any of his captors, so Viral gained nothing from faking sleep except a ride closer to their destination, and he didn't plan on arriving wherever they were headed. Viral shifted noisily in his seat, hoping disturbance would bring an end to his blindness instead of a rifle butt to the nose. There was an intelligible murmuring from the front, and after a few minutes someone was fumbling at the cloth covering his head.
The hood came off, and the first thing he noticed was that daylight was outrageously painful after being knocked out and in the dark for a few hours. His pupils contracted to slits a fraction of a second too late; white-hot pokers drove their way into his sockets. The second thing he noticed were all gun barrels in his face.
He wasn't terribly surprised. The sun was still bleaching his vision, and his captors appeared as little more than fuzzy black blobs—though some of the blobs might also be weapons, head-rests, or possibly door handles. Viral dealt them all a solid glaring regardless.
His headache didn't improve, but his sight slowly returned until the blobs resolved into black hoods. There were four of them total, each wearing a dark, featureless mask similar to the one that had just been pulled off his head, though unlike him, they could obviously see through whatever cloth covered their eyes.
They were in a big, military issue car. In the front seat, a tiny, rail-thin female in a flappy black top had twisted around to face him. Dishwater blonde hair tufted out from the bottom of her hood, reminding him of the collar on his first uniform. The driver beside her was roughly the size and shape of a refrigeration unit. He wasn't so much fat as he was enormous in every capacity, and he seemed to have forgotten about the road in favor of staring at their captive.
Two men sat on either side of Viral in the back, twins; no wonder he had confused their smells for one. They were identically average in every way: average height, average build, no outstanding traits, but there was a moist softness about them that struck Viral as vaguely fungus-like. Each twin cradled a rifle in his lap, each turned his blank hood to watch the beastman. Viral wished the back seat was wider.
The front seat colossus broke the silence, "It's really him."
"No kidding," Viral snapped. His skull still felt a size too small, and these staring, faceless masks were creeping him out.
The female nudged the driver. "Watch where you're going." Her companion turned back to the wheel with the ponderous advance of a tectonic plate. Even then, his blocky head kept nodding from the road to the rear view mirror.
The blonde swung her handguns back to the beastman; he cocked a brow at one of the muzzles. "Well," she hitched a scrawny shoulder, "they might slow you down a little."
"And this one's loaded with tranq darts." She menaced him with the right-hand weapon. "It'll definitely slow you down. It's the same stuff we pumped into the vents after sealing off the elevator." Viral didn't need to see her face to know she was smirking beneath the hood. "The hypnotic temporarily interferes with your nervous system without actually damaging it, so your healing factor won't be triggered. But we gave you plenty, just in case."
Meaning they'd probably dosed him with enough to knock out a few grapehippos, which also explained the furry taste in his mouth. At least he still had the hidden trackers. After the infamous second abduction, he'd been given a pen that doubled as a locater; another had been implanted in one of his uniform's shoes.
Viral didn't appreciate the breach of privacy, but he could tolerate them if it meant avoiding a repeat performance, and he had to admit that the electronic tags had executed their job perfectly in the past. Blinking red lights were probably going off in some control room at this very moment.
"We didn't know if you were being monitored, so we fired up the electromagnet. It was a pretty small pulse, but it should be enough to disable any phones or tracing devices you might be carrying."
Damn. This brat was like a twisted version of Leeron. Scratch that, she was exactly like the normal Leeron. Speaking of him...
Viral ratcheted up his scowl a few notches. "How clever, too bad you went to all this trouble for nothing. I've already been poked and prodded a thousand times by better minds than yours." He added a toothy sneer for good measure, because they had really pissed him off. "And no, I don't remember what Genome did, or I would have spilled it already. Do you really think you'll discover anything when even Leeron couldn't?"
"No, we don't expect to figure out what makes you tick or learn the secrets of immortality or any of that." Perplexed and speechless, Viral slumped back between the two silent brothers. The blonde ringleader took it as a sign of defeat and holstered her weapons.
This had never happened before. He'd been prepared for a lot of things, but the possibility that his abductors didn't care about obtaining power wasn't one of them. It was unsettling. With no idea how to address the situation, he settled on glaring some more. The twins on either side of him required too much turning for efficient glowering, so he treated them to an angry profile as he snarled at the back of the driver's and female's heads.
Anyway, he needed to think. Viral glanced out the window. Nothing but miles of dun-colored rocks and dust as far as the eye could reach. They could be anywhere, but it was probably remote from the look of those dry gullies and ditches. He considered making a break for it—moving vehicle, badland and bullets be damned—only he didn't want to bank on being able to unlock the door before getting tranquilized again.
Two questions consumed him: what purpose his kidnappers had in mind and how he could prevent it. Viral searched with increasing anxiety for an answer to the last problem. Bare ridges obscured most of the forward view, and the car appeared to be climbing in elevation. His odds were growing steadily worse the farther they retreated into the mountainous depths. As for the former question, he was probably better off not knowing.
He didn't want to know. He really didn't want to know. Viral snorted, remembering some old adage about the dangers of curiosity, but he guessed that was a little redundant considering how screwed he was already. "What?" he finally addressed the pale female who appeared to be their spokeswoman. "What do you want, then?"
"Your cooperation." She craned around to look at him and spread her hands in a placating gesture. "An exchange that both parties might find mutually beneficial."
Viral narrowed his eyes. "Are you proposing some sort of business arrangement?"
"Something like that. Our interests are ... underground, let's say, in such a way that makes them very difficult to satisfy. We'd been hoping for someone like you, Viral. You have talents that make you ideally suited to aiding our goals, physical talents that we don't intend to duplicate, merely rent for a while. All we ask is that you help us achieve an impossible dream, and afterward you will be returned unscathed and a little richer than you were."
The beastman didn't feel much more enlightened in spite of all that rhetoric. It sounded rehearsed, or was that because he had heard this all before? A spark flickered in the back of his mind: there was something disturbingly familiar about this speech.
"Wait..." No. It couldn't be, but it had to be. Viral lunged forward dramatically, only to rebound off the safety belt and flop back into his seat. His eyes bulged, the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. "You're that pervert film group that keeps sending me messages!"
A silence washed over the car. "I told you creeps: I'm not going to be vivisected for other people's enjoyment."
Ringleader cleared her throat stiffly. "We prefer to be called 'specialists.' We don't like the word 'pervert.' Use that sort of language and people jump to all sorts of nasty conclusions. They can't understand our unique appreciation of the human body. Or near-human body, no offense."
He gaped at her. "You doped me and put a bag over my head! Offense taken, asshole!"
"That's your fault for ignoring all our letters."
"And," she interrupted, "we understand that these aren't your preferred working conditions. For your inconvenience we're offering handsome-"
"Monetary compensation, I know. It was in all the letters. But I happen to think some things aren't for sale! Like my body! The cash you're offering plus whatever it cost to pull off this shit must have been more than enough to buy some decent special effects, but no, your solution is kidnapping." Viral seethed. "Feh, kids these days don't have any sense, don't respect anything."
"Hey now!" The ringleader grabbed the head rest in a white knuckled stranglehold. Her tiny breasts poked aggressively against the over-sized top, and Viral struggled to keep a straight face. "You don't know what you're talking about! Do you know how hard it is to be rejected by your family, society, you, just because your true passion is forbidden?" The beastman's eyes nearly rolled out of his head. "What choice do we have? To a real enthusiast, special effects are a hollow imitation, and yet the realism we crave is almost impossible to obtain, not to mention highly illegal."
"What part of this is legal!"
"You have unlimited healing, making it less illegal. Our previous statements have made abundantly cle-gahh!" The car was wracked by a tooth-rattling shudder. Viral struggled to keep from biting his tongue.
"Geeeeeez, Murv!" A flimsy slap bounced off the driver's bulk. "Keep your eyes on the road willya?"
"Okay, okay. Sorry." The one called Murv eased the left tires off a rocky shoulder and back onto level ground, then added in a stage-whisper, "I thought we weren't supposed to use names."
The stringy ringleader paused. "We aren't. That's why I used your alias."
These were the geniuses who'd pulled off the fourth great beastman-napping. Perfect. He couldn't even cover his forehead in disgust because his hands were tied together.
"Ahem, as I was saying," continued the female, "if you're concerned about the procedures you'll be experiencing, I can give you some more specific descriptions of-"
"No, no! Absolutely not. Just... shut up, all of you."
"Fine!" she huffed. "But you're only making it harder on yourself by refusing to cooperate. You have a bad attitude." She spun away from him, slamming her back against the seat with what she probably thought was righteous indignation—something Viral could teach her a lot about. The silence that followed was a welcome respite.
Viral wondered if the Agricultural Fellowship had missed him yet. He should be eating a late lunch instead of hatching plans to escape the sweaty clutches of four socially inept morons. The treacherous road wound in front of car, and he couldn't see any way out of this maze. Unless he was already looking at it.
The beastman tapped his claws together thoughtfully. "You said something about compensation. Do you have the cash with you?"
"Let me see it." Ringleader rummaged in the floorboard by her feet, reappearing with a light metal briefcase, the kind that seemed to be made specifically for underhand exchanges. She flipped the case open to reveal several thick stacks of bills. The beastman wrinkled his nose in distaste. He'd taken a while to warm to the concept of money. He could have adopted the idea much quicker if that face hadn't been plastered all over it.
"70,000 Kaminas, as promised." Simon could be such a jerk sometimes.
She snapped it shut as Viral reached for the case. His shackled claws closed over one side, the female gripped the other. They stared each other down—or came as close as possible when one participant's face is obscured—and engaged in a brief tugging match over the money.
Viral assaulted her with the coldest, sharpest scowl he could muster. When that didn't work, he tried another tactic. After a few moments of calculation, the beastman opened his mouth as if to speak, but failed to produce any sound. Viral clamped his eyes shut; he couldn't say it. His face went through a complex series of contortions—turning first white, then red—that gave the impression of an internal battle being waged. After a short-yet-alarming performance, he swallowed his dignity and looked at the 'specialists.'
"Perhaps-" His bit down on another twitch in his jaw. "-I'm being selfish. This is important to you, but the whole time I was only thinking of myself. I can easily survive a few dismemberments, so of course I'm being greedy by not allowing others to frolic in my guts." All this he managed to say without unclenching his teeth. Ugh, I think I'm going to be sick. On second thought, that would serve them right... on third thought, these freaks would probably get off on that kind of thing.
The car interior flooded with excited pheromones, and Viral had the urge to take a shower or twelve. He suppressed a grimace as one of the twins he'd nearly forgotten started breathing audibly from the mouth. If either of them tried to smell him...
At least the ringleader was just as distracted. Even with his tied wrists it was no trouble for Viral to wrestle the briefcase from her unyielding grasp and fold it under his arms.
She regarded him with suspicion. "So you're saying..."
"I'm saying frolic to your hearts' content."
As expected, all four hoods trained on him as one, their pervert ears presumably quivering in anticipation. The beastman avoided the unseen gazes, keeping his eyes on the windshield.
"You mean you'll do it? You finally saw the light? Really?"
"No, not really." Viral pressed the release button on his safety restraint just before they crashed into the ravine.
He peeled himself off a boulder thirty feet away from the smoking wreckage. Viral spat out a chunk of broken glass. No doubt he'd be finding shrapnel in all sorts of interesting places for the next few days. And teeth. It felt like he'd broken two at least, but there was already the itchy sensation of replacement fangs moving forward in his jaw.
A few coughs issued from the debris behind him. Viral was going to take his sweet time before alerting any authorities to their crash location. In the meantime, the survivors could enjoy being pinned under a twisted vehicle before winning a free ride to jail. Bastards. Lucky for him their driver sucked. He was torn between the desire to see them behind bars and his mortification if anyone discovered the reason behind his kidnapping.
The metal case was still intact, not far from where he landed. He tried to take a step and landed flat on his face. Ah yes, his ankles were tied.
Viral chewed at the rope around his wrists, thankful that he hadn't been cuffed with anything metal; that would have been the icing on this horrible affair. He used his freed hands to untie his legs, then slowly rose to a more-or-less vertical position. Vertebrae ground together awkwardly, but his gait was already correcting itself.
When he clambered up the slope of loose rock and back onto the road, he was already deciding what to do with the contents of the briefcase. A few charitable donations would be appropriate, school funding and the like. Food, definitely. His uniform had been artfully shredded during his high-speed exit, so that would need replacing—since he was going wild with possibilities, he might even try a different style. Viral was feeling nostalgic for red.
He shouldered the case and followed tire tracks backwards through the dust. It would likely take hours before he reached any sign of civilization, and he considered fleeing into the wilderness instead of having to admit why he'd been missing and how he obtained so much money. Fetish money. But Esme would worry if he disappeared with no explanation.
Viral sighed, defeated, and stayed on the road. He couldn't believe this had happened again.
Useless Author's Note: I'm afraid this kind of thing would actually be a problem if there were an immortal or two floating around. People are weird.