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In the Service of the Shogarth

a short story
by Geoffrey Maloney

1. When you first begin to work for the Shogarth you may think you understand the situation that confronts you, but you don't. You must learn to adapt more quickly than you are used to. The Shogarth expect this of you.

Three weeks into his employment cover scanin the service of the Shogarth, the portal near Rhys Price's work-station squelched open, disgorging a member of his employer species and Mr Gorsky, the Terran Liaison Officer.

'You must drink this,' Mr Gorsky said, handing Price a metal container with a thick liquid churning within it.

Price looked at the Shogarth that had accompanied Mr Gorsky to his work station, but got nothing from its flat unblinking face. Its eyes were so small, so tiny and dull that Price found it hard to believe that there was any intelligent life behind them. The Shogarth shifted its bulky pear shaped body from side to side -- its very pink skin was covered only in what appeared to the casual human eye to be a tight-fitting one piece bathing suit. It seemed that it was embarrassed to be in the presence of humans.

'I don't understand,' Price said, looking at the liquid in the container and beginning to feel nauseous.

'You are being disciplined,' Mr Gorsky said.

Price looked at Mr Gorsky and thought he was one of those people who looked as if they had always been old. In some people you could usually see traces of their youth and in others even imagine what they had been like as young children. Not Mr Gorsky. He was the sort of person Price had spent his life trying to avoid.

'It would be helpful if you could explain what it is that I've done,' Price said, casting a glance in the direction of his co-workers. There were forty or fifty of them spread out along the length of the narrow floor that was their workplace. All of them had their heads buried in their booths, coding away on their touch sensor interfaces. They did not want to acknowledge what was happening. Price realised that he was totally on his own.

'Drink it,' Mr Gorsky replied. 'It is not as bad as it seems. It will please the Shogarth, make amends for whatever you might have done, whatever they think you have done. You must learn not to question the Shogarth culture but adapt to it. Drink this and we can all get back to work earning those vast amounts of money they pay us.'

Price looked at one of the vindows that were strategically placed around the workplace pretending they revealed the outside world. They may have been portal-cams, but Price suspected that they were VR generated by the Shogarth AI system. He had no idea what the outside world was really like or even what planet he was on for that matter. After signing a 12 month contract with the Shogarth, he had moved from one interior to the next via the portals of their empire. Just now the vindow displayed a young man and woman running along a beach, with a black and white dog chasing after them. They were lightly tanned, healthy and affluent looking and living a life that Price could only dream about.

Price found Mr Gorsky's words unconvincing, like something that had been rote learnt from a Shogarth personnel manual, but the beach scene on the vindow made him think about how much he needed the money the Shogarth were paying him. He took the container from Mr Gorsky, held his nose and drank the liquid down. He was instantly nauseous and fell to the floor with his intestines cramping and his stomach heaving, but nothing came up to relieve those feelings. It was as if he was completely dry inside and had already disgorged everything he had eaten and drank that day.

Mr Gorsky and the Shogarth departed, leaving Price on the floor in a cold shuddering sweat. Unable to move or think of anything but the nausea that possessed him, he remained beneath his workstation for several hours, groaning and cursing and listening to the soft padding sound of the touch sensors as his co-workers continued their work. Not one of them came to his aid.

2. Despite the occasional disappointment or minor setback, ensure that you commit fully to your job. The Shogarth will reward you for this.

When relief came to Price it was instantaneous. One second he was engulfed in an intestinal nightmare, the next he was feeling relaxed and strangely happy. The relief was so spontaneous, so wonderful, that he found himself climbing off the floor straightaway and resuming his seat at his workstation. He was determined to make up for the time that he had lost, determined to prove that he was the right person for the job and show the Shogarth that they had failed to discourage him. I will buy a boat, I will be on that beach, he kept telling himself and before he left that day, Mr Gorsky popped in to see him.

Mr Gorsky bent down close to him and spoke in a confidential manner, yet his voice was still loud enough to carry to several of Price's co-workers.

'Change can be painful,' Mr Gorsky said, 'but resistance to change is a dead-end. The opportunities you seek will come when you align yourself with the Shogarth's needs and realities. Commit fully to your job.'

Price assured him that he would, but was surprised when Mr Gorsky's confidential tone dropped to an even fainter whisper. 'You didn't do anything wrong,' Mr Gorsky said. 'It's all been a misunderstanding. Think of this episode as part of your development program. The Shogarth consider you to be a very valuable employee. I expect that they will increase your remuneration as a result.'

Price was relieved for the second time that day, but bewildered at the same time.

3. Accept the vagueness of your relationship with the Shogarth; ambiguities and uncertainty exist in relationships between all intelligent species. Instead of trying to remove the uncertainty, rejoice in it. Remember, the Shogarth pay you well.

Price arrived home at his apartment quite late that night to find a woman waiting for him. She looked liked the sort of woman that he would have expected to be working for the Shogarth, as he believed he looked like the sort of man. Her face was hard, like something bad had happened to her once and her expression had been set in concrete ever since, but her body was slim and there was a certain edge to her that Price found attractive.

'My name's Elaine,' she said. 'Mr Gorsky said we should talk. So do you want to talk or do you want to have a good time?'

Price didn't want to do either. He was too busy thinking about all the work he had to do the next day and wondering how he could better understand what the Shogarth required of him -- so he could avoid further misunderstandings in the future. But then the thought struck him that Elaine might be part of the increased remuneration Mr Gorsky had spoken of and he did not want to appear ungrateful.

'I'm always interested in a good time,' Price said, but there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in his voice.

The concrete on Elaine's face softened to something more resembling clay and her eyes shifted sideways -- a brief flit towards a portal that had opened up where the door to Price's bedroom stood. 'Yeah, well follow me,' she said, moving her hips in a suggestive and exaggerated fashion all the way to the portal.

As Price stepped into the portal, he cast a glance back into the room and had the one and only out-of-the-body experience of his life. He saw himself still standing in the kitchen talking to Elaine.

Price and Elaine walked round the paved rim of an artificial lake that had wild brown ducks and black swans floating upon it. 'Interesting place you've got here,' Price said. He had no idea where this place was or what he was doing there, but that was portal technology -- sometimes you just had to accept where it took you.

'Just borrowed a little of the Shogarth's VR space,' Elaine said. 'It's safe ground. They won't mind unless they know about it, and even then it's not a problem unless they actually find it. So how's the job going?'

'Okay,' Price said, thinking that it looked as if they were going to talk after all.

'So what do you do?'

'What the Shogarth tell me to do,' he said, surprised to think that Mr Gorsky hadn't told her already. 'I take one lot of code that means nothing to me and translate into another lot of code that means nothing to me as well. I'm pretty good at that sort of thing.'

'So maybe you'd like to know what it all means?' she asked.

'I don't need to know what it means to do my job,' Price said.

'So I'll tell you anyway. The Shogarth realise that information networks through AIs can be traced readily. It doesn't matter how much you encrypt your data, how many security walls you build into your AIs, there's always somebody out there who's going to be able to creep through. So at strategic points, they break the AI link, create a dislocation point, download crucial data and have it physically processed into another AI system by a bunch of humans. You think you're good at that sort of thing? Most humans are.'

Price watched a black swan dip its long neck down into the water and come up with a silver fish quivering in its mouth. For a moment, he felt like that fish, about to be engulfed by something, when he would have preferred to keep swimming in the calm waters of the Shogarth lake.

'It's nice to know that I'm important,' he said. 'But what's your angle? Obviously Mr Gorsky didn't send you.'

Elaine laughed. 'I hope you remember that,' she said.

'What?'

'Forget it. I work for the Shogarth too, and others as well. There are enemies of the Shogarth who wish to trace the dislocation points and are willing to pay for it.'

'The Shogarth pay me well,' Price said.

'Others will pay you better. In three months you'll make more money than you'd earn in a year working for the Shogarth.'

Price stooped down, picked up a flat stone and sent it skimming across the lake. It skipped five times and he felt pleased with himself. He was intrigued by the idea that somebody would pay him more money than the Shogarth. Twelve months with the Shogarth or three with their enemies. If he should get caught...the risk seemed too high.

'Not interested,' he said.

Elaine shrugged. 'It's what they all say at first. But you need to look after yourself, not get fooled into thinking that the Shogarth will look after you. I'll give you a few months, then you'll come round. I'm sure of that.'

Back on the other side of the portal, Price said, 'What happened to having a good time?'

Elaine shrugged. 'Maybe next time.'

4. Avoid inconsequential relationships with others of your species. These will only distract you from the work that you need to do. During the period of your contract the only relationship you need to worry about is the one between yourself and the Shogarth.

Price returned to his work station the next day with a renewed confidence. He began to take more care over the accuracy of the code that he wrote, wanting to make sure that if he was a data dislocation point that he did his job well, that he succeeded at it better than anybody else ever had. He worked sixteen hours that day and sixteen the next, and as the months sailed by he fell into a habit of working long hours and living a solitary life. He did not make friends easily and after the day he had been disciplined he felt he had some sort of stigma attached to him. His co-workers avoided him religiously. Still he didn't mind. He wasn't looking for friendship or romance -- those things would come later, he told himself, when he had enough money to buy a boat and live in a paradise like the one he saw on the vindow each day.

5. Hold yourself accountable for all outcomes even if you have no control over them; remember that the Shogarth are not responsible for what you do or don't do; only you are accountable, you and no one else.

Three months into Price's contract, Mr Gorsky and a Shogarth squelched into the vacant space next to his work station one day. 'We'd like you to come with us,' Mr Gorsky said with an artificial smile on his face. 'There's a few small administrative matters we need to clear up.'

Price agreed gladly. He thought that he had been working so hard that the Shogarth might be about to offer him a promotion or increase his salary.

On the other side of the portal, Mr Gorsky said, 'Sit down here please,' and showed Price to a small plastic chair that was in the middle of a large open room. 'You need to understand the process involved. I will put the concerns of the Shogarth to you and put your defence back to them. It's a very simple matter really; you have nothing to worry about.'

'What defence?' Price asked, but just then three or four portals buzzed at the far end of the room and several Shogarth dropped through. A long table and several chairs followed from another portal and the Shogarth sat down.

One of the Shogarth began to speak and Mr Gorsky motioned to the far wall. There, on a vindow that suddenly appeared, Price saw a replay of the conversation he had with Elaine in his kitchen several months before. He saw himself saying, 'I'm always interested in a good time,' and Elaine responding, 'Yeah, well I'm not,' as she made a rapid exit through the front portal of his apartment. It was not as Price remembered it, but he was relieved that there was no recording of their conversation in the park with the black swans.

'Well, I can understand the young lady's reaction,' Mr Gorsky said, as the vindow shrunk into a pinprick then blinked out, 'you need to be...' but then one of the Shogarth spoke and Mr Gorsky began translating.

'The Shogarth have no interest in directing the morals of their human employees. However, they are concerned about the fact that fifteen minutes of time has elapsed within what is obviously a very short conversation.'

Price tried to remain calm. There was an element of risk here, but he hoped it was manageable. Either the Shogarth knew about the conversation in the park or they didn't. He decided that there was no point in believing the worst scenario, so he went with the best one; the Shogarth knew nothing more than what had been displayed on the vindow. But the recorded conversation was shorter than the elapsed time, so...

'Perhaps there was a technical malfunction in the Shogarth's monitoring system,' Price said. 'Since I've been working with AIs, I've learnt that there is one thing that you can always be sure of -- even the very best AI will let you down from time to time.'

The Shogarth stared blankly at him. Mr Gorsky, hovering between Price on his small plastic chair and the Shogarth at their long table, seemed to be under stress; he was sweating profusely, and there was a certain agitation in his manner. He's worried, Price thought, that the Shogarth will connect him to this.

Mr Gorsky walked towards Price. 'Are you sure that nothing else occurred that night?' he asked.

'I can't explain the missing time,' Price said, 'but the conversation I had with that woman, it happened just as you've seen it. My only explanation is that there's been a malfunction in the recording system.'

Mr Gorsky nodded. 'Okay, I believe you,' he said. Then he turned and approached the Shogarth. Mr Gorsky spoke to them for a long time. They asked questions and Mr Gorsky spoke again. Price was beginning to get worried. Maybe they knew Elaine had offered him a job with their enemies. He was thinking that maybe it would be better if he just admitted what had really happened -- after all he hadn't accepted the offer -- but then Mr Gorsky turned back to him and said, 'It appears that the Shogarth are willing to accept your argument concerning a possible technical malfunction in their recording system.'

'Thank you,' Price said.

Mr Gorsky's face became dry and unemotional. The crisis was over. He was feeling relieved and back to his normal self. 'You will return to your work station now,' he said.

When he got back to his workstation, Price looked at it like a long lost friend. He realised he had come very close to losing his job and with it his dream. The thought crossed his mind that there may have been other penalties involved, but he tried not to think of those. Instead he busied himself with his work, again wishing to make up for the time that he had lost, feeling pleased that everything had worked out well. So it took him by surprise when Mr Gorsky and a Shogarth arrived at his workstation close to the end of the day.

Mr Gorsky bore another of those foul flasks in his hand. He took the lid off and said, 'You need to drink this, I'm afraid.'

Price didn't believe what was happening. Even thinking about what was in the flask made his stomach turn. 'But we won, Mr Gorsky,' he said, managing a smile.

Mr Gorsky did not return his smile. 'Although you may have been correct in your statement about the malfunction, it was a not a polite thing to say,' he said. 'The Shogarth are feeling embarrassed about this and they do not like feeling embarrassed. You need to drink this to make amends.'

Price felt the back of his throat gag. He rubbed his hand across his face, massaged his throat. 'I can't,' he said, 'I don't think I'll be able to get it down.'

'You will drink this,' Mr Gorsky replied. 'The Shogarth are not offering you a choice.'

Price conjured up his dream, imagining himself on a boat somewhere, somewhen soon, looking after rich off-world tourists keen to sample the good life for a few days at a stretch. That was his dream; the filthy stuff that Mr Gorsky was offering him was the reality. He picked up the flask, raised it to his mouth and drank it down.

As the pain and frustration of the dry nausea swamped him, Mr Gorsky bent down close to his ear. 'The Shogarth are disappointed with the time it has taken for you to renew your commitment. Once you have recovered, you will return to your apartment and await further instructions.'

6. Don't make yourself a victim, don't be a loser. Remember the Shogarth are winners; they excel at everything they do. They do not employ losers. You must be a winner too!

Price returned home in a state of anguish, sat at his kitchen table, drank a cup of coffee and tried to convince himself that the Shogarth would give him another chance. Already he realised that there was no point in blaming the Shogarth; they had done nothing wrong. They had kept their part of the bargain; they had given him a job and paid him well for the work that he did. But he had lied to them, made them feel embarrassed about the standard of their monitoring system...Price heard a buzzing sound and turned to see a portal opening up near his bedroom door. Climbing through it, he found himself in the same park that Elaine had taken him to before. Down by the lake's edge, he saw one of the black swans swimming towards him. It kept swimming all the way up to shore then, rising out of the water, it began to transform itself. Price blinked his eyes when he saw Elaine emerge out of the image of the swan.

'So they got you drinking the barmy fluid again,' she said. 'They must think you're really important. They never try that one on the trash.'

'Yeah, it's great stuff,' Price said.

'You know that it's got these tiny little beastie machines in it that work their way into the lining of you gut,' she said. 'Then they get into your bloodstream and flow all the way up to your brain. There they play around with your emotions; things like loyalty, commitment and dedication to the Shogarth. And before you know it, you'll be forgetting about all that lovely money you're making; you'll be working for the Shogarth for nothing. You'll be so anxious to get your work done that you won't even want to take time for piss. But that's okay, the Shogarth will insert a little tube up your urethra. As for having a shit, they've got a slightly bigger tube for that.'

Price believed none of it. He knew that the Shogarth had been good to him, that he was the one who had let them down. He had not been accountable for his own actions, he had not told them the truth. 'Sure,' he said, turning back to the portal, 'and there's a nutrient tube that runs into your mouth and all the way down into your stomach -- so you don't even need to take time out for lunch.'

'This is my last offer,' Elaine said. 'It's now or never. Join the enemies of the Shogarth and become rich overnight.'

But Price had stopped listening. Still, as he stepped through the portal, there was this small part of his brain that kept saying, what if she's right, what if it's really like that....

7. You must alter your expectations. They are only your own expectations, not those of the Shogarth. Your only expectation should be that the expectations of the Shogarth will change constantly. So should yours.

Price was back in his apartment barely five minutes and still thinking about 'what if' when Mr Gorsky squelched through the front portal. This time he was alone and his hands were empty. 'I'm so glad to find you in,' Mr Gorsky said. 'I've had enough. I can't do the things that I do with a clear conscience any more. As if I assist any of the humans here in anyway at all. I'm just a servant of the Shogarth. When I think about the things that I've done to people, the way I made you drink the redevelopment fluid...forgive me, please forgive me.'

'We're all servants of the Shogarth; they pay us well,' Price said. 'It's up to us to fulfil our part of the...'

'Yes, yes, they pay us well, but it's not worth it; I've decided that in the end it's just not worth the money. So I've made up my mind, I'm getting out of this place. There's a ship at the space port. It's got room for two more passengers. I want you to come with me. I know the portal codes that will get us there.'

'I want my job back,' Price said. 'In twelve months time, I'll have made the money that I came here for. Then I'm buying my slice of paradise.'

'The Shogarth will never give you that opportunity,' Mr Gorsky said. 'They know about you and Elaine. They've traced a copy of your conversation in the park and they're not happy about it. That's the reason that you and I need to get away. They blame me, you see, think that somehow I set the whole thing up. You must come with me...if you stay here I don't know what the Shogarth might do to you, what they might do to me...'

'But I've done nothing wrong,' Price said.

Mr Gorsky smiled. 'You should realise by now that the Shogarth don't care,' he said.

8. One day the Shogarth will be the Masters of the Universe. Don't you want to go along for the ride? Of course you do! After all, you are only human. So be sure to accept willingly every challenge the Shogarth offer you.

As soon as Price and Mr Gorsky exited the portal, the Shogarth were upon them, shoving them up against a wall and pinning their arms behind them. One of the Shogarth grabbed Price by the chin and twisted his head around so that they stared at each other face to face. The Shogarth smelt sweet and sweaty like a pet pig that Price had once had as a child. It spoke a rapid string of guttural words at him that he couldn't understand. But Mr Gorsky, his head buried against the wall, still managed to translate. 'It said you must kill me.'

The Shogarth thrust a gun into Price's hand then stood back giving him room to move. Price raised the gun and pointed it at the Shogarth who had Mr Gorsky pinned against the wall. Its lips curled back revealing sharp pointed teeth, like the milk teeth of some demon. Its face was all chubby, pink and wrinkly like a baby that had been cooked too long in its mother's womb. Mr Gorsky turned his head from the wall and looked at Price with terror in his eyes. 'Kill me! Kill me,' Mr Gorsky said. 'It's your only chance.'

Price moved the gun away from the Shogarth, held it up beneath Mr Gorsky's chin. He believed that he was playing out a part, trying to make it appear he was doing what the Shogarth wanted, but really stalling for time. He counted how many Shogarth there were -- six or seven -- wondered how many bullets the gun had and how long it would take Mr Gorsky and himself to get to the portal and punch in an access code. Then a strange thing happened. One moment he had no intention of killing Mr Gorsky then the next he was thinking, why not? He found himself warming to the idea immediately. Probably there was only one bullet in the gun anyway and what had Mr Gorsky ever really done for him? There was no way out of this; both himself and Mr Gorsky were done for, but if he was to pull the trigger, use that one bullet most effectively, the Shogarth might just let him go. But then he thought something even stranger: He thought if he killed Mr Gorsky the Shogarth might give him his job back, that they might even make him Terran Liaison Officer. Price smiled to himself. It seemed like the best idea that he had ever had....such a great idea that he pulled the trigger without any further consideration. 'So long, Mr Gorsky,' he said.

9. See yourself as a service centre and serve the Shogarth with the fullness of your mind, your body and your soul. You must get close, intimately close to them, become one with them. The better you serve them, the better you serve yourself. And if any of this worries you think, really think, did you have anything better to do anyway? You didn't, did you?

After he killed Mr Gorsky, Price was surfing a huge tidal wave of adrenalin. The Shogarth were very pleased with him. They slapped him on the back, laughed in their own fashion and spoke their garbled language at him. This is good, Price said to himself, this is really good. He felt sure at the very least they were going to give him his old job back.

But then the Shogarth took him via a portal to a huge underground cavern. It seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, with rows upon rows of workstations set up with AI interfaces. At each work station, there was a human busy pounding away at a sensor touchpad, totally absorbed in their work, fully committed to the tasks that were before them. All of them were naked and tubes of various weights and thicknesses wound around and into their bodies. There were thick feeding tubes entering their mouths, thinner tubes winding up through their nostrils and other tubes passing from their anus and genitals, just like Elaine had told him.

'Come let me show you around.'

As if in a dream, Price found Elaine taking him by the arm and leading him out into that vast sea of working humanity. 'All the essentials of life are catered for,' Elaine said, 'plus more. We no longer need the vindows; the images are played directly into our minds and the skill that is required to do that work is second nature. It is part of us, what we are, what we have become.'

Price heard a noise to his left and turned to see one of the workers fall from its chair. It lay still on the floor as if in a coma. Some small dark creatures came scurrying quickly -- 'Another servant species,' Elaine whispered -- picked the body up, placed it on a trolley and wheeled it away.

' Only the very best workers make it this far. I tried to warn you, but you wouldn't listen,' Elaine said.

In the next instant, Mr Gorsky was by his side. 'Thank you, Elaine, for that little introduction. Now, Price, let me show you to your new workstation,' he said. 'I'm sure you're going to be very happy here.'

Price pulled away....

.... from the wharf and took the boat out into the bay. Carefully clearing the rocks, he switched over to the AI pilot and walked aft to have a drink with the passengers and crew. He stood at the edge of the boat, gazing across the turquoise waters, thinking how lucky he was. It was a beautiful sunny day, but still in his ears he could hear the sound of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people padding away at their touch sensors, continuing their work. The Shogarth will be the Masters of the Universe one day, Price thought, and here he was, speeding across the bay of a safe tranquil harbour, glad to be along for the ride.


© Geoffrey Maloney 2003, 2005.
This story first appeared in Geoffrey Maloney's collection Tales from the Crypto-System (Prime Books; ISBN 1894815238) in September 2003.
Tales from the Crypto-System by  Geoffrey Maloney
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