Degrees of Wrong
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by Anna Scarlett
Category: Romance/Science Fiction
Description: This time, the straight-and-narrow path could be the road to ruin. Dr. Elyse Morgan's mission: find the cure to the HTN4 virus. The compensation, courtesy of the United Nations: a lab stocked with hi-tech goodies, limitless resources and enough chocolate to make her rear look like a cellulite farm. Bonus: she gets to live. Rescued (kidnapped) and secreted (imprisoned) on an undersea warship, Elyse adjusts to her assumed identity as a cadet with the finesse of a toeless ballerina. Her sulfuric temper and blatant insubordination capture the unwanted attention of the ship's captain, the gorgeous, infuriating, engaged Nicoli Marek. Elyse would rather perform her own autopsy than become the other woman, but Nicoli--who's as full of himself as he is of secrets--regards his impending marriage as a mere political transaction. And Elyse as fair game. As Elyse's suspicions about the UN's true agenda mount along with her attraction to the relentless, chronically shirtless captain, she must choose between the murky path to everything she's ever wanted, or the squeaky-clean path of self-sacrifice--which could mean taking the secrets of the virus with her to the grave. Warning: Features a strong, chocolate-loving heroine who takes no prisoners on the way to saving the world from an epidemic and winning a captain's heart.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: October 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [435 KB]
Reading time: 274-383 min.
I was too tired for his charm to be charming. In fact, since I'd already bludgeoned the medical code of ethics today, overdosing him to shut him up seemed an acceptable degree of wrong.
Fortunately--and unfortunately--I lacked the morphine to do it. This last injection wouldn't shut him up, wouldn't impair him beyond silliness--but it just might take the bite out of stitches. Possibly it would make him drool too.
I tightened the tourniquet around his leg. The blood oozed from his nicked artery, an improvement from the pulsating rush it had been moments before. "This is morphine," I told him as I injected it, breaking another rule. After all, if he was lucid enough to flirt, then he was lucid enough to ask for permission.
He shrugged, his composure bordering on disinterest. Sitting against one of the wooden beams holding up the makeshift hut, he shifted often, ending each almost-grimace with a smile. Though well played, I knew he was in pain--and if he wasn't, we had bigger problems.
"You're the doc," he drawled. Apparently he'd run out of wisecracks. That only solved one of our issues. An explosion outside rattled the hut and my nerves as I slid on clean gloves and pulled the makings of stitches out of my kit.
"We're winning," he said. "We always win."
"That's good." By "we" I assumed he meant the other black-clad soldiers littering the field and aiming their guns at Team Khaki. Whether that really was good, I couldn't say. I didn't know who these people were, why they were here or why they chose this island as the setting for their disagreement. I also found it difficult to care. This inconsequential dirt mound had been inhabited in peace for decades, and now the fields marinated in the blood of its people. While I still valued this man's life, I couldn't curb my irritation at his obvious contribution to the melee.
"I've got to stitch your leg. You've lost some blood." Lots and lots of blood. That he was coherent enough to annoy me seemed impossible. "Swallow this." I pushed the pill through his lips, not even flinching with that particular rule. The antibiotic would ward off the most virulent infections for up to ten days--and upset his stomach for most of them. This I didn't disclose. Acceptable degree of wrong.
Each rule sounded like glass shattering in my head.
"I can't wait for the morphine," I told him. "You want something to bite down on?"
He nodded, the action flooding the tiny tributaries of sweat on his forehead, his blond hair now dark and sopping. The black grime on his face accentuated the bluest eyes I'd ever seen--eyes that entertained pain and humor as company.
I retrieved a wooden stick from my kit, barely suppressing the inappropriate smile. I'd been teased throughout medical school for including this caveman tool on my list of essentials, the butt of endless jokes. I didn't think my colleagues would be laughing right now.
He bit down with a nod of thanks. Should've thought about the stick sooner. Would've spared me the guilt I'd feel later for contemplating his overdose.
As I stitched, I heard the screaming, the discharging of guns and of life. Each explosive blast shook the hut, seasoning us with dust. The sweltering air strafed us with the mingling scent of smoke and death. My patient for his part held still, fixating his glare on what was left of the palm roof, his teeth grinding an impression into the wood. He grimaced sometimes but never verbalized the pain.
I finished, saturating the wound with antiseptic, wrapping it with gauze. "This is just the beginning." I snapped off my gloves. "As soon as you can, get follow-up treatment. It'll need to be examined to make sure it healed correctly and has no infection. And it needs to be cleaned and re-dressed often." He might need surgery too. This I also didn't disclose. Acceptable degree of wrong.
He relaxed, pulling the stick from his mouth and discarding it with a toss. For the first time since the initial stitch, he looked at me, his posture less rigid. And incredibly, he grinned. It was the laziest smile I'd ever seen--only one corner of his mouth bothered to participate. "Now you owe me a favor," he said. Moving his arm behind his head for support, he all but sprawled out in front of me. He looked comfortable.
Perhaps the morphine had worked better than I'd anticipated.
Although his declaration was cousin to ridiculous, I humored him and the narcotic. "Really? For what?"
If he needed a diversion from the pain, I could understand. I made a display of relaxing, moving from my heels to sit on the earthen floor, even as I reminded myself of the others who still needed me. I'd leave him here as soon as I ascertained he wouldn't go into shock.
"I let you poke and prod my innards." He referred incorrectly to the area. "I believe that entitles me to a repayment of some sort."
"What can I do for you, soldier?" I waited for the punch line of my own joke. It came.
"Lots of things, Doc. But the one I want most is..." his wicked grin widened, both corners of his mouth working together in a smile that reached those devilish blue eyes as he finished, "...a date."
I expected the occasional flirtatious patient--it came with the territory--and I always took it in stride, adjusting my bedside manner as needed. But this wasn't the occasional patient. Confidence was transparent on his filthy face. This man knew what he was doing. His definition of bedside manner had to be different than mine.
I allowed myself to look at him as a woman instead of a doctor. Of course, there were those impressive eyes, fertile with mischief, and the blond hair that seemed to pay tribute to his baby-face features. I guessed him to be around my age, twenty-four. His black uniform--what was left of it, anyway--fit his body as if hand tailored to accentuate it. It was absurd to think any military would accommodate each soldier in this way--and impossible not to feel sorry for the countless men who must look and feel inadequate in this uniform designed for his perfect build.
He did appeal to the eye--and he knew it.
"A date? You live around here?" I kept the rhetorical question cordial, noting I could no longer hear gunfire.
His grin faltered with the geography. "No. But I'm sure we could make it work. I could pick you up at your office."
I didn't bother telling him this was my office--wherever my patient was--because the clarity in his voice troubled me. The morphine and blood loss should have teamed up against him by now, commencing with the drool and slurred speech. Had it even taken effect yet? For his sake, I hoped so.
"What's your name, soldier?"
"If I told you, I'd have to kill you."
Not rolling my eyes was almost physically painful. "Well, should I call you soldier all the time? You get many dates that way?"
"What's your name, Doc?"
I would have answered--none of the secrets I kept had anything to do with my name--but I swallowed the response as a stampede of soldiers charged into the hut in a whirlwind of weapons, boots and dirt. At least six barrels pinpointed my head, marking me for dead with their lasers. The shuffling behind me hinted that looking back would be both pointless and dangerous. Instead, I eased up, stifling an almost overwhelming reflex to run.
As the hut reached maximum capacity, it collapsed around us in a pile of palm, exposing us to the sunlight--and the devastation of the battlefield. When the dust settled and my eyes adjusted, I took in a full view of the destruction, as best a statue could.
This five-square-mile speck would never be the same. Was my home still standing? Did my lab still have four walls? I couldn't convince myself of it.
The apparent leader stepped forward, and I forgot about my home. In a fraction of a second, he inspected my blue-eyed patient, taking in the bandages and my open medical kit.
"Identify yourself, woman," he barked. His black mask allowed a teasing view of his dark eyes. He sported an intact version of the black regimentals my patient wore.
"I was just getting to that, Geoffrey," said my still-very-lucid invalid. "You interrupt everything." Two of the other masked soldiers helped him to his feet. He cut off my objections with a dismissive wave. "I'll be fine."
I clenched my jaw. Who exactly is the physician here? Hoping to find an ally in the leader, I said, "He is not fine. He was bleeding to death, and I just stitched him up five minutes ago. The morphine will be wearing off soon, and he'll wish he didn't just stand." Or the morphine will just be kicking in.
He proved to be my friend--well, the blue-eyed womanizer's friend, anyway. The leader nodded without losing eye contact with me, and the twin-like soldiers whisked my patient away, amid his protests. To make him aware of my disapproval of his stunt, I huffed aloud, stomping my foot. Blue Eyes never looked back.
I felt betrayed. Used and betrayed. Unappreciated, used and betrayed. I resolved to send him a bill, if I ever found out who he was.
The leader recaptured my attention by taking a step toward me. "Your name, Doctor."
His abrasive tone chiseled at my backbone. I bit my lip in contemplation. Well, in anxiety too, but mostly contemplation. I almost told Blue Eyes my name, but it felt different, like a casual introduction. This...this felt like an intrusion. Common sense screamed at me to resist. To withhold it, to keep it safe, to use it for negotiating. But for what? I wasn't wealthy or famous, had no political ties and no friends gracing those categories. Still, if the man with the gun thought my name was valuable, then I ought to consider it priceless. I lifted my chin.
Surprise flickered in his eyes before he shifted back to business as usual. He lowered his gun then swept it behind his back before clasping his hands in front of him. Confidence and ease--neither of which belonged to me--filled the air between us like a vapor.
I tried to gulp in a way that didn't seem cowardly. I also tried to remember why I'd decided to be difficult in the first place. Something about negotiating came to mind but didn't seem quite as important as before. No doubt these men were well trained in the art of Information Extraction--how far would I let it go? Was it worth pain? Was it worth suffering?
"Dr. Elyse Morgan," he said.
I tried to rein in the shock before it reached my face but could tell by his triumphant glare how poorly I'd succeeded. I'd been handed over like a gift. Might as well have been wearing a bow.
"We've been looking for you. You'll need to come with us."
The sharp pain at my neck catapulted me into the long, black tunnel of unconsciousness. As coherency slipped from my grasp, as I struggled against the detachment, one last thought broke the surface--I forgot to lock the front door this morning.
I hated being tazed.
* * * *
"Dr. Morgan? Can you hear me?"
Yes, vaguely. My eyes were open but registered inky nothingness. A hand shook my shoulder, then disappeared.
"Dr. Morgan, if you can hear me, please acknowledge."
Acknowledge what? And was someone holding me down? My thoughts felt uncatchable, circling in my head like agitated bees. And then the buzzing stopped. My memory came back like the bursting of a dam--a slow trickle at first and then the final, violent rupture, flooding me with images and sounds and smells. Then the pain. Rage worked through my body, reanimating my arms and legs through the numbness.
I hated being tazed.
After a few seconds of unproductive blinking, my vision returned, albeit a little blurred. A lone light fixture hung from the ceiling by its own cord. I was strapped to a metal chair with hands bound behind me, my neck stiff from the weight of my head hanging limply while I slept. It was chilly. Or my neurons were misfiring from the trauma.
I hated being tazed.
The leader from the hut stood before me. He'd ditched the mask, but I recognized his sentient dark eyes. I guessed him to be about my height, stocky and of Native American descent. It was impossible to tell if the straight line across his face was a frown or a smile.
This must be the Information Extraction Room. Pushing back fear, I examined my surroundings, searched for the torture devices. The concrete walls were a stark, institutional white. No tools or straps hung from the ceiling, no eerie hooks protruded from anywhere. Of course, I couldn't see behind me--maybe everything was placed out of sight, in case they could get me to talk without torture. I had, after all, confirmed my name without so much as a paper-rock-scissors.
The room seemed to hold its breath, bloated with unease, gravid with suspense, waiting for the delivery of the first word, the first movement, the birthing of the consequences of sitting in this chair. I supposed anticipation could be torturous--maybe this was the first level. I inhaled deeply to slow my traitorous heart rate--which had tripled since I woke up--and stiffened my spine, sat straighter. I will pass this level.
Only two soldiers stood guard with my tight-lipped captor. Guess they didn't expect me to put up much of a fight. How embarrassing.
"How do you feel?" the leader asked. His question reverberated like percussion off the walls, startling me almost out of the chair. I suspected he did it on purpose.
He raised a brow. "Are you in pain? He used the lowest setting on you. You've only been out for an hour."
"Where are we?" Hot damn, I sounded livid.
"I asked if you were in pain."
"Thank you for your concern, but I'm not in any pain. You people really need to reconsider the use of tasers. The neurological damage you can cause far outweighs the temporary advantage you have over your victims." I doubted he cared a snit about the neurological damage of his victims--he was probably the Superintendent of the Information Extraction Room.
He chuckled. "I am sorry about that. We didn't think you'd come willingly. Would you like something to eat? To drink?"
"Is this a tea party, then?"
Another chuckle. "No."
"Have I been arrested?"
I strained against my bindings. He motioned to one of the clone-like guards, who freed me. I placed my hands in my lap in a show of poise--for now. These people excelled at the anticipation part of torture.
I huffed. "Do I have to guess why I'm here? There are rules though, okay? If I'm close, you have to say 'hot', and if I'm not close--"
"You're very irritable, Dr. Morgan." He uncrossed his arms and dragged the only other chair across the room to sit in front of me. The noise of it scraping across the concrete floor nearly gave me an eye twitch--another form of torture, no doubt. "Our mission was search and rescue. We came close to failing that mission."
I rubbed my neck and winced at the new pain. "Rescue? Are you sure? Felt more like a kidnapping to me." Besides, I wasn't in any danger when he found me. The fight was moving away from us, toward the village. Dear God, the village. "What about the others? Were you able to save--?"
"It was a specific mission."
I shot forward, creaking the chair. "You--you came to the island looking for me?"
"Not just us. Who do you think we were protecting you from?"
"They came for me? I can't believe that. All the killing, the brutality--an extermination. You're saying I could have prevented it all by turning myself over?"
The straight line of his mouth dipped into a frown. "It wouldn't have prevented the killing. They would have done it anyway. You just would have been first."
I closed my eyes, remembering the arrival of the first soldiers to the island. They'd flown in on their choppers, jumping out when scarcely close enough to do so. The height should have broken their legs. These warriors were monstrosities though, almost twice the size of an average man, with long, muscled legs possessing a thickness envied by most tree trunks. Adorned in desert-hued livery and also masked, they carried enormous guns yielding shells big enough to separate a man's upper body from his lower--firing as soon as their feet met with earth.
The killings were indiscriminate and widespread. I couldn't believe they had a purpose to their slaughter. I couldn't believe their purpose was me. "Why?" I whispered. "Why me?"
He sat back. "You have something they want. You have something we both want," he amended. Even as he said it, I shook my head. "Yes. Your research on the Black Death has stirred quite an interest in the political arena."
Clarity struck. The Black Death. They thought I'd found the cure to the HTN4 virus--the biological warfare waged by terrorists these past months. The disease engineered to wipe out entire cities, to debilitate continents, to weaken the unity of mankind in general, forcing them to ferret out hiding places for their children, to turn their backs on their neighbors in order to stay alive.
They thought wrong. And a lot of people died today because of it.
"I haven't found the cure," I snapped. "You've wasted your time." And your bullets, blood and men.
"But you're close."
I scoffed. "Says who? You might have noticed, I'm not exactly leaping and bounding in resources here." That was the truth. I bartered medical services for food and supplies to supplement the modest inheritance my parents left behind--hardly enough to properly fund the kind of research endeavor we discussed now. Still, my parents had died from the HTN4. What I lacked in resources I made up for in determination. My progress wasn't the stuff of headlines, but more a private exertion fueled by the need for closure for my parents--and for the human race. His intimate knowledge of this left me feeling vulnerable, exposed. I wrapped my arms around myself in a protective hug.
"We can remedy that."
"I don't follow. And who is 'we'?"
"The United Nations."
I shot erect in my chair, mouth agape. "The UN sent troops looking for me?" I yelled, but couldn't help it.
The superintendent stood and paced the room. He seemed relieved we'd gotten to this part. "The UN has been informed of your works in this field and would like to offer its assistance."
At my raised brow he continued, "We've heard you've made progress in understanding the disease. We would like to offer you a deal, of sorts." He seemed comfortable referring to the United Nations as "we". I wondered what his rank was.
"We will guarantee your protection, and all the supplies you require for your research. You'll have access to the best equipment available. Unlimited time for your work. In addition, we'll pay you--well--for your contribution."
Perform my research in a professional lab, with limitless resources--a scientist's rapture. I doubted it immediately. "What if I don't make a 'contribution'? If I can't do what you're asking?"
He stopped pacing and stood in front of me. "We're confident in your abilities. We've researched your background. Very impressive, Dr. Morgan. You were the youngest individual to ever graduate from The World University of Medicine, at the age of twenty-one. The only child of two doctors, you displayed a gift in science and math at an early age..."
Of course, they'd done their homework. This man spouting off my statistics knew everything about me before he even laid eyes on me. No doubt he knew the color and size of my moles, and what I dreamed about last night. I, on the other hand, had no idea where we were, or even his name.
"What's your name?" I blurted.
This seemed to catch him off guard. He thought for a moment. I wanted to tell him the questions got much harder after this.
"Ralph," he said finally.
I rolled my eyes.
"You don't like that name?"
"It's slang for regurgitation." Besides, Blue Eyes had called him something else--what was it?--Geoffrey.
He chuckled. "Never thought of it that way."
"Never thought of it at all, did you, Geoffrey?"
"You are very observant, Doctor. Do we have a deal?" The man probably taught attention-deficit classes. His ability to focus annoyed me.
"What's the catch?" I tried to sound businesslike too. After all, that was how he presented it, like an everyday business transaction. Just sign here, I expected him to say. In reality, my life was changing. My stomach formed a knot that couldn't be soothed by food or drink or drug--a knot of the unknown.
He didn't try to deny there was a catch. He sat down, leaned forward in the chair, hesitant. Either he was trying to build the anticipation, or he just wasn't sure how to tell me. "You will be aboard a UOC vessel."
I believe that stands for United Oceanic...
"Corps," he finished for me. I didn't realize I'd spoken aloud, let alone struggled with the acronym. The UOC represented the oceanic front for the United Nations. When the Middle East bled their last veins of oil a few decades ago, the UN unveiled the earth's first united ocean exploration team. The initial fleet of scientists evolved into an underwater military presence, a standing guard of natural resources, presumably. Beyond that, I knew little about it. I was certain the vessel to which he referred went in the water though.
"I can't swim," I admitted. No doubt he was aware of this already.
His laughter resounded off the walls and startled the twins, which I appreciated. "You don't have to swim. The vessels stay submerged, and when you do port, you'll be conveyed back and forth from the ship in transport pods. Your feet will never get wet."
"I can't work in a lab on a submarine." Of that I was positive.
"For someone as intelligent as yourself, Doctor, one would think you'd be a little more in line with the times. The ships are massive. They house over one thousand individuals, and can stay submerged for more than six months at a time. Think of it as an underwater city."
Not just a city below sea level. No, it was an entire other world. The knot in my stomach expanded the tiniest of fractions. "Why on a submarine?"
He rolled his eyes at the word submarine--I made a mental note to always use that word in his presence.
"It's for your protection. Aside from the obvious gun power, you'll also be mobile, making it more difficult for you to be located."
Unfortunately, it made perfect sense.
"When?" But I knew when.
He stood. "We've made arrangements for you to board tomorrow morning. We sent a team out to recover what's left of your belongings. I'll require a list of your immediate needs within an hour. You can stock your laboratory once you board." He walked toward the door, paused and turned back to me. "There is one more thing. So as not to expose your whereabouts, you'll be posing as a crew member. You will, of course, be part of the medical staff."
He'd saved the best for last. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. "I know absolutely nothing about military protocol," I said through gritted teeth.
He clasped his hands behind his back. "You'll have a guide. As it happens, an old friend of yours is on board to assist you with your research and help you adjust to your surroundings. Dr. Lois Folsom is the directing officer of medical personnel aboard the vessel."
I doubted this had happened so much as it had been arranged. I was beginning to suspect that if they had desired me to eat oatmeal for breakfast this morning, they would have arranged my pantry in such a way as to promote it over the bran flakes.
Dr. Folsom was not an old friend of mine, but a friend of my mother's, which I supposed made her one and the same. I last saw her at my graduation from medical school. So I would know one person in this underwater city of his.
"Ralph?" I intentionally used his false name. "I haven't accepted your terms."
The two strides it took him to get to me made the room seem smaller. I stood, making the guards uneasy. Geoffrey wasn't as short as I thought. I stared at his neck.
"Your acceptance is not required."
"I see," I whispered. Definitely a kidnapping, then.
His expression softened. "This is a beneficial arrangement for you, Dr. Morgan. I can't think why you'd possibly refuse. It seems more of an opportunity than anything else."
Granted. Still, I didn't like being forced to do anything. But then, what did I have to go back to? The island was destroyed and my home couldn't have fared any better, especially considering I'd been the objective. And I couldn't overlook the possible contribution to medicine, the suffering I could prevent. It felt irresponsible not to do it. Sacrifice the one for the many. I couldn't do it earlier today because I lacked pertinent information. But I could now, in a different way and on a larger scale. Besides, it wasn't like I had a choice--I didn't know if these men had been ordered to kill me if I refused, and as he had mentioned earlier, others would be coming for me. The UN appeared to be the least of my worries at this point.
I nodded. "I'll give you a list."
The Superintendent of the Information Extraction Room departed, leaving me with pen, paper and an ulcer.