He could feel them watching.
Josef stood bare feet in his room for ten seconds and looked around. It was the same, but different. He couldn’t tell how different; it was just different. Perhaps it simply felt different. Or maybe he was different.
The room smelled like stale cigars, stale whiskey and bad breath.
Josef had never prided himself on his cleanliness.
He prided himself on his ability to get the job done. At any cost. The ends justified the means. Always.
He’d been a terrifying man, given to fits of anger and blind outbursts or rage. Which accounted for his rapid rise in the ranks of the DHS. He found a place where he fit in. His murderous rages were not only rewarded, they were both justified and applauded.
As long as he could control himself around his superiors, he could get away with anything.
Give him a gun, a badge, and he could do what he wanted. Such a feeling of power!
But he didn’t feel so powerful at this moment. Not standing in this room now.
His room looked filthy and ridiculous.
He couldn’t believe he’d been such an animal.
He couldn’t believe one encounter with a stranger named Paul made him see things so differently. Made him feel so different. So much more alive. So much a part of all humanity.
He’d been ordered to kill or capture. Instead, he had joined with what was once the enemy. He was now part of the Hive. And he finally felt human.
This was his first mission failure. But it felt more like his biggest success.
He looked around the room and made mental notes of what he would clean up first. The kitchen table. The dishes. The empty beer bottles.
Taking off his shirt, unholstering his weapon and sitting on the edge of the chair to remove his shoes and socks, he prepared to take a shower.
Josef was still covered with dried blood and debris from the explosions.
He had walked away from fallen comrades, and instead of killing the group responsible, he had joined with them.
That would be unforgiveable in the DHS. But, no matter.
This thought left a brief twinge of regret for the man he once was—but this was quickly replaced with joy for what he had become.
He was connected to the Hive. He could feel more minds connecting as he sat there getting ready to clean himself off.
The shower would be his official baptism.
He smiled. He felt accepted. Not just by the small group within the DHS, but by everyone. He would no longer have to compete with another human being for anything. Not for jobs. Not for money. Not for love.
He was now part of a growing collective. All would be shared if you were in the Hive.
Standing in the shower, turning the cold water on as high as possible, he felt his skin become taught and felt his old, underlying feelings of anxiety wash from his soul as easily as the dried blood sloughed from his skin.
The cold water was revitalizing. It shocked him awake.
His eyes were open. He saw his old life for what it was: a life of addiction, endless cravings, long stints of boredom, mixed with daily confusion, distress and social isolation.
He did what he was told by the government and got rewarded for it. Day in, day out.
This created a Pavlovian system of rewards and punishment that kept him completely brainwashed throughout his entire career—throughout his adult life.
He was Russian. He should have recognized it earlier.
But was it not the same for any person plugged into the delusions of the corporation? You show up for 8, 12, 14 hours a day and are constantly bombarded by corporate messages, constantly harangued by the distant drumbeats emanating from somewhere deep within the jungle of the corporate boardroom.
These messages eventually drill themselves into your consciousness and soon, you believe them. You believe every word. Making you nothing more than a corporate drone. Willing to do their bidding for but a scrap of a reward.
Just like one of Pavolv’s dogs.
The phone rang, interrupting Josef’s reverie.
Stepping from the cold shower, not bothering to towel dry, Josef reached for his cell phone, next to the empty beer bottle.
It was the Secretary of Defense.
“What do you mean they fucking got away?” the voice bellowed from somewhere over the ether.
Josef smiled. He had learned early in his career to stick to the facts. He wasn’t paid to provide analysis, editorialize, or give opinions unless specifically asked. “They must have help from a foreign enemy. What they did to us and how they escaped is simply not possible with our existing technology. They escaped as if by magic.”
“Magic?” The voice howled. Josef could imagine the SECDEF rubbing his stubby fingers through his greasy hair. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I want a full report within the hour, Josef. Within the hour.”
“And one more thing, Josef,” The Secretary drawled.
“What’s that sir?”
“You’re being reassigned to a desk job pending a full review.” Josef could hear the SECDEF draw in sharp breaths of air between syllables.
Josef cocked a burnt eyebrow.