"Zerto"

I.

I closed the bar early that night, pushing the last intoxicated Garlian onto the sub lift. As it dropped, I let the safety doors stand open so that I could glimpse the huge hole in the planet that was the Alfa Shaft. Four lifts were still running, keeping the late shift workers headed to the surface Factories and to the mines below Core. I held on tightly to a safety bar as I stood on the platform, the wind force of the speeding lifts threatening to pull me out. I often wondered what happened to those who fell into the Shaft. How long would it take a body to reach the intense heat of the miner's level?

It seemed the shaft went on forever vertically: down into darkness, up into the false light of the Satirs' establishments. And I was in the Middle level, full of people of prospect and merchants. I was above the filthy Core level people who slept with the white rats and beneath the wealthy surface owners.

Our entrance sign shined brightly above me, stating in glowing letters, "Larry's Zerto".

Zerto. Since I was a little girl, I'd loved the tickle that word gave my tongue. It was Garlian in origin, but most people would say that it had no meaning. That simply was not true. Larry told me it meant paradise, and Larry was never wrong.

Larry was human, a soft skin like myself. He said that we humans had lost hope in a pleasant afterlife and that Garlians had far more faith than any other race on this pathetic planet. He said that once humans had believed in paradise, but that was before they left their precious home planet in search of knowledge.

Dear ol' Larry knew much of history and races. I knew little more than my customers, so I was under the belief that he was the most intelligent creature below surface. Even after this was proven untrue, I sought his council. But Larry could not help me with this situation.

I wonder, would he grieve for me if I was the one dead? I believe he would not. Larry believed in Zerto, you see. I only wish that I had his faith. Nevertheless, I believe Larry would close the bar early in my honor as I have done in his.

I bolted the lift's entrance, retracting the service platform, and turned to give the jan-droid cleaning orders. The droid buzzed pass, extending its robotic arms, its cheap scrub flaps rotating. I left the floors and the kitchen to the jan, but I watched my back as the machine worked. The droid was a gift from the Satirs, specifically the upper level managers. This, Larry said before his death, was either cleverness or irony. I was not fully aware of the meaning of irony at the time, but I knew the Satirs to be clever and ruthless and hated by all. In their usual cunningness, they'd given every one of the subterranean businesses jan-droids and required the lower class in Core to keep them for sanitary purposes. I would find this all too comical if the situation were any different.

The droids were spies. Larry once said that they dig up more dirty laundry than they clean. Even the smallest child knew to keep their mouths shut when jans were cleaning. If something "unlawful" took place within the bar, the droid would report it to its true masters. If the transmission went through then Satir enforcers would be down the shaft and at the door before the perpetrators could catch a lift. So Larry had to keep his other, more profitable business quiet. Larry was very good at hiding things from prying eyes. It is for this reason that I know he was betrayed.

Larry had been alone the night before; I had gone to the Core to see my mother. The door was locked from the inside. Even the cargo slot was barred for the evening. There was no way for an intruder to enter. It was only Larry and the droid. The next morning, I had found Larry with a hole where his heart should have been.

The Satir enforcers said it was probably the work of a beneficiary; most bar owners owed credits in one way or another. Their investigation stopped there. They said that Larry had left the bar and his things to me, him having no actual family. My only instructions from Larry's part were to keep the business going and believe in Zerto. I understood his instructions. I was to continue as planned. The Satirs were fools to let me live.

They thought me ignorant, too young to succeed on this Level. They were wrong. It was unusual for a simple human girl from the lower levels to inherit a business, but Larry had taught me well how to run the bar all those times when he had been occupied by business deals. Still, I was frightened. If Larry had been betrayed, eventually I too would be turned over to the Satir enforcers—unless they already knew about my involvement.

I needed comfort. I needed to know that all of this was real, not some sort of elaborate delusion. So I went to see someone whose advice I had rarely sought since childhood.

I felt like a coward for going to visit my mother during her few off hours, but she was the only person who could put my mind to ease. She had a room at the end of a rat infested corridor in lower Core. She shared that small area with three others who worked different shifts, no true room to herself as was often the in The Pauper's Dungeon. At the moment, she was alone.

With a few vague words, I gave her the news. Her eyes glittered as I spoke, and I thought, for the first time, that my visit had not been in vain. I had, at least, given her some small delight while I mourned my mentor.

I was somewhat surprised, for Mother had hated it when I first began my work in the bar. I'd still been a child, and I had only worked at the factory for less than a rotation. At that young age, the managers used my small size to their advantage. I'd almost lost an arm when I'd been sent to fix jammed machinery, and I still bore the scar on my shoulder. My mother had needed credits to take me to the infirmary, so she had taken a loan from Larry. He let me work it off for her, showing me how to mix drinks and program new music selections. I never left the bar, and Larry paid me a full, adult's wage.

It was a good life.

I did not regret the job change. I was a servant, but I was Larry's servant. I no longer had to work under those I hated for half-coin. I saw how the Satir influence had hurt my family just as it had most people in the Core. My father was killed in the mines soon after my birth. My mother had lost a leg in a grinder even before that and her prosthetic was obvious in her limp. My only sibling, my older brother, Tee, lived to work the mines, rising from the depths so few times that I honestly could not remember his face by my tenth rotation. I was different from other Core people, Larry said. I was not submissive. I refused to kill myself in the Factories for the Satirs, because I kept hope.

When Mother heard me speak of my strive for a better life, she believed I spoke of the bar. She saw that as my way out of Core. But she was wrong. I did not just want out of poverty. I was ambitious, as foolish as Larry. One level up was nothing to me.

I wanted more.

Mother interrupted my thoughts, her thin fingers wrapping around my arms in greedy embrace. I shuttered at her touch. Her hands were foreign to me. Now Larry, he had wrapped an arm around me almost every night, a hug and nuzzle me on the forehead for good dreams. My mother though. . . I did not know her feel, her warmth. It was odd.

The only thought that crossed my mind at the embrace was that I did not wish to rub against her clothing for fear of bringing the itchy white biters, ghost mites, back into the bar with me. The infestation would be disastrous. Then I wondered where my worries had been when I had slept on a Core bed two nights ago, as I had been doing since birth. Hidden with my pride? Now both came to surface.

"Shu, do you see what is going on? You are but one level below surface. You have a business that brings in credits. Are you blind?" She awaited a reply, but I gave none. "The Satirs let you have all that was Larry's. They let you rise a Level. One does not move to Middle without their approval."

My eyes were as cold as my blood, I was sure. I was surprised that I had not realized this earlier. Of course, she was right, but what did that mean? Was I to forsake my plans? Was I to give up all that would be mine? Never.

"Then I will show them that they have made a good investment," I said. "I accept their gift."

Mother stared at me, her hard face framed by limp strands of greasy hair, almost nonexistent lips pursed in either fear or anger. I memorized her then, every part of her, from her hunched stance to her angular sweat-streaked cheeks. I would not see her again, but perhaps I could truly see her for the first time. There was too much danger in short visits now that I was Middle. With good fortune and a moderate allowance from my pocket, she could live ar elatively decent life, but only if I was no longer in it. After all, if Satirs truly were responsible for the easy of my rise, they would just as easily take it away if I consorted with Core.

"Then you will be moving into Larry's quarters, Shu?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. Then the frown had been one of hurt.

I nodded. Larry's quarters were now mine. I had moved my things into his room while business was slow. It was a place where I could be alone. With only eighteen rotations to my name, a room to myself was indeed a luxury to a Core person. But I was no longer Core, I reminded myself, I was Middle.

I left Mother without giving or receiving a farewell.

I made my way up to my new quarters, switching off the holographic dancers on the stage floor and dimming the lighting. I reached my door and secured a new password into the keypad. That little precaution hadn't helped Larry, but it was worth a shot. Once inside, I reached for a metal rod and jammed it into the top slot above the door so that it couldn't slide up while I slept. I promised myself that this would stop the jan for at least one night.

I turned. Larry's room was metallic blue. A holodisk player hung on an otherwise empty wall. The tiny disk inside was already spinning on auto load, obviously programmed to play after sensing the door mechanism lock. Images of Larry's head and torso appeared from the palm-sized projector. My eyes widened as Larry's voice called my name.

"Shu, if you are watching this recording then I am already dead," stated the grainy image. "There is no reason to fear, my dear. The Satirs are unaware of this message. This disk was programmed to play for you and only you. Nevertheless, the information you are about to be given is not to be considered sensitive." Larry smiled, drawing tight lines around his eyes and mouth. "Take a seat, Shu."

I stumbled back onto the bed, my heart feeling as if could explode in my chest.

"I left a case for you. It contains a skin suit, uniform pullovers in your size, and other various necessities. I also left your favorite childhood toy. I don't know exactly how I acquired it. . . ."

I stood quickly, spotting a black box in one corner of the room. Its simple top was ajar. I peeked inside. The clothing was wadded together along with a stack of scratched holodisks and a cracked class figurine of some water creature; obviously, the belongings had been rifled through earlier by the nosy enforcers. All that was left in the box was a golden ball covered in tiny colored bulbs. It was indeed a toy, a bauble that Middle children often used to play light games with. It was called a Loozy. However, I had never held a Loozy in my life.

"Nevertheless, I am quite certain that you'll enjoy having it back after all this time. I wonder if you still know how to play that silly game," Larry's recording said. The projection bent it's head slightly, looking under his brow with a serious, caring expression. "Shu, I have left you a good life, a business, property, credits—you always were my favorite girl. Take care, kiddo. Live a safe life. I'll see you in Zerto."

The image disappeared. I heard a light buzzing as the autoplay came to a stop. I held the Loozy in the palm of my hand. This wasn't mine.

I smiled. "You were a good man, Larry," I whispered. "You may have folded, but the game is still on." I held the Loozy at eyelevel. "And I'm definitely leaving this hellhole the winner, old pal."

I slipped out of my clothes and into one of Larry's ragged bed shirt. I lay on the stiff bed, smelling the dead man's scent. The faint musk was almost smothering, but it held dreams. Sleep came quickly.