Hemlock

An exercise in creating dramatic tension.

Adapted into a web-based alternate reality game here

The dimly lit halls of Sovereign Headquarters bustled with activity. Members of the resistance group were celebrating a major victory in the fight for liberation from the oppressive Axiom regime: the assassination of Arthur Grimke. People briefly stopped their revelry to salute or applaud a dark-skinned man and woman as they passed by.

“I really can’t thank you enough for today, Vera,” Marcus said, nodding and waving at the recognition from his fellow freedom fighters. In all the time he’d spent leading the resistance, Vera was the most exceptional operative he’d ever met. She had a gift for stealth and reconnaissance work which had been instrumental to their latest mission. “We’ve been trying to take him out for months. It feels good to finally be able to move on.”

Vera, unsure of how to respond to the attention, mimicked Marcus’s responses when people acknowledged her. “I’m happy to help. What’s next on our list?” she replied. Confidence shone brightly in her smirk.

“Whoa, someone’s eager. Tonight we’re taking a break. You know what that is, right?” Marcus joked.

Vera nudged him with her elbow. “Shut up, man. Can’t a girl be excited?”

“I think excited might be a bit of an understatement.” Marcus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But you know what…I think it might be time to put everything you’ve got to good use.”

“What do you mean?” Vera asked.

“Have you given any thought to taking a leadership role here?”

Vera stared at him wide-eyed as an understanding smile slowly came over her lips. “Marcus I…I’d be honored.”

Marcus smiled right back. “Glad to hear it. Meet me in my office first thing in the morning and we’ll talk. Tonight, get some rest; you’ve earned it.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As the heavy metal door eased shut behind Vera, her smile fell away. She took off her brown bomber jacket and locked the door before retrieving a small box from a hole in the wall under her bed. Inside was a smooth black band which she proceeded to slip onto her wrist. Her finger left a trail of purple light as she slid it along the band. While the implant in her skull rang, she undid her hair, letting the black waves fall down her back. The ringing stopped. “Identification,” said a voice through the implant.

“Identification Uniform Delta Charlie. Agent Hemlock reporting in for Commander Nightshade,” Vera replied, her tone devoid of all of the brightness it had held with Marcus.

The line went dead and moments later a deep female voice filled her head. “Hemlock, good to hear from you. Status report?” Nightshade said.

“I have gained the Sovereign leader’s trust. After today’s mission, he offered me a leadership position in the resistance. We’ll be meeting in private tomorrow morning to discuss it.”

“Excellent. And Grimke?”

“I administered the sedative as instructed and notified his staff that they should remain underground until Sovereign has been neutralized.”

“This is why you’re my favorite.” Vera could practically hear the grin on Nightshade’s face. “Is it possible for you to leave their headquarters without being noticed?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Then tomorrow I want you to end this. When you’re alone with the target, execute him then get out of there as fast as possible. It’s time for you to come home.”

Vera froze for half a moment. “…Understood.”

“What was that?” Nightshade’s tone was no longer friendly. Vera’s head started to ache right where the implant was and she knew that her commander heard her hesitation, no matter how slight. “You feel that, right? You know what that is.” Vera’s vision went black as her head felt like it was being engulfed in flames. “I hate it when things get messy. And I hate losing good agents.” She dug her nails into her arms and bit her lip so hard it bled to keep from screaming. “But tell me, Hemlock, what do I hate more than both of those things combined?”

“F–failure…” Vera choked.

“I can’t hear you.”

The pain rocketed down Vera’s spine, forcing her head back quickly enough to give her whiplash. “Failure!” she hissed.

“That’s right. If you hesitate tomorrow, just remember I won’t.” Slowly, the pain subsided. Nightshade let the dark edge leave her voice as she whispered, “Good luck.” The black wristband stopped glowing and Nightshade was gone.

Vera slowly removed her stiff fingers from her arms. When her vision returned, she saw blood caked under her fingernails. She became acutely aware that she was coated in sweat.

It had been three years since she joined Axiom and received the codename “Hemlock.” She was only sixteen at the time and fiercely believed in fighting for her country. Only after spending seven months undercover with the Sovereign resistance movement had she been exposed to the corruption and evil wrought by the Axiom government. It gave her enough pause to upset Nightshade–something she had never done before. Only two things were certain to Vera now: that she wasn’t sure if she could complete her mission, and that Nightshade would activate the bomb inside her implant if she couldn’t.

Massaging her neck, she went into the bathroom and turned on the water for a hot shower. Water droplets flooded her face as she sat curled up under the stream for the better part of the night.

The next morning, Vera’s hands shook as she slid the poison syringe pistol into the inside pocket of her jacket. She balled her hands into fists to still them; they hadn’t shaken like this since her first mission. Every click of her boots against the stone floor of the bunker made her ears ring. Her body went into autopilot as she lumbered down the wide halls. Her mind was in such a haze that she was surprised when Marcus opened the door in response to a knock that she didn’t remember sounding. He smiled, then frowned as his eyes drifted down her face. “What happened to your lip?” he asked.

His voice was barely enough to shake Vera back into reality. “Oh, I–” a phantom pain creeped across her forehead as she remembered the agony that made her bite through her own skin. “I fell. Last night, in the bathroom. I hit my chin on the sink.”

Marcus laughed a little. “Never pegged you for a clutz. Here,” he passed her a small bandage from inside his pocket.

“Thank you,” Vera mumbled. She took it without thinking, but couldn’t bring herself to put it on. She shoved it into her jacket pocket and felt her gun through the lining.

They proceeded into Marcus’s office. It was a large room with lamps all around. The light was much warmer than the cold fluorescents used throughout the rest of the structure. He had a large black desk covered in papers and gadgets on one side of the room and a sitting area with three shabby chairs and a low wooden table on the other. Most of the back wall was taken up by a large touch screen monitor lit up with the black and gold Sovereign logo. “Are you thirsty?” Marcus asked as he opened a fridge in the corner of the room. He grabbed himself a glass bottled soda and looked at Vera.

“I’m fine,” she said, despite her throat begging for water.

Marcus closed the fridge, popped the cap off the bottle, and downed a long sip before speaking again. “Sorry; I’m useless in the morning without this stuff. I can’t stand coffee, but I still need my caffeine,” he explained.

“I think most of the energy from that stuff is probably sugar,” Vera countered.

Marcus laughed again. It was an infectious sound, which would have been welcome on any other day. “You’re probably right. Do you want to sit?” he asked, gesturing toward the worn chairs. Vera nodded quickly. They took seats across from each other. Vera sat rigidly upright, pressing her back into the chair as far as she could. She watched him drink more, wishing she could extend this moment indefinitely. But seconds later, Marcus set down the nearly empty bottle and leaned forward with a soft smile on his face. “I’m really happy you agreed to talk,” he said.

“Yeah, don’t mention it.” The air was stifling.

“So before we get too deep into this, I want to hear your thoughts on what you think you could do best as a Sovereign leader.”

“Well that’s…an interesting question. Um…” A dull ache rose and fell in her head like a wave, a not so gentle reminder that Nightshade was watching. Vera rolled her neck and exhaled as the pain faded.

“Are you alright?” Marcus asked. He had noticed Vera’s face contort for a moment when she stopped talking.

“I’m fine.” She reached into her pocket and stroked the pistol through the fabric. “Actually…” despite her better judgement, she let her body relax and leaned forward. “There’s…something else I want to talk to you about,” she whispered.

This time the pain came like an avalanche. Vera shut her eyes, clutched her hair, and before she knew it, she was on the floor. Marcus flew to her side; she felt his hand on her arm and opened her eyes to see his fearful expression. His mouth was moving, but the only voice she could hear over her screams was Nightshade’s.

“You little brat. What did you think was going to happen if you talked? That was sloppy. And stupid.” The darkness in her voice cloaked Vera like a shroud. “You have ten seconds.”

Ten.

The pain lessened just enough to allow her to move.

Nine.

Its presence was still very tangible.

Eight.

Sobs racked Vera’s body as she lay on the floor.

Seven.

Marcus pulled her up into his arms.

Six.

“You’re safe. It’s ok,” he murmured.

Five.

She wasn’t safe–and as long as she was there, no matter what happened, neither was he.

Four.

Vera slowly reached into her inside pocket with a trembling hand.

Three.

She looked up at Marcus, her face puffy and wet with anguish.

Two.

She watched his eyes change from fear to horror to anger to sadness as he felt the barrel of her gun press into his stomach.

One.

“I’m sorry.” She pulled the trigger.

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