On the Loop
How can 30 crew members just vanish into thin air?
One last month in paradise before an 8,000-year journey. That’s what the Company had promised before whisking Alina Andra and her entire crew of 500 to tropical Tilulipu, where it had built a luxurious resort just for the occasion.
Only the rooms of the entire executive team now stand empty, and Alina’s crewmates turn to her to make sense of their predicament. So why have a handful of her more dubious colleagues decided that the mass disappearance is part of an outlandish plot? And why have they named Alina as a co-conspirator?
Now thrust into a less glamorous spotlight, Alina heads a search for the truth. But while the answer she discovers may explain the missing crew members, it may also put Earth’s first crewed extrasolar mission in jeopardy.
Alina left her hand on the door latch after Dom left, the metal cool in her palm. A breeze from the balcony stirred the leaden room air, and raised goosebumps along the back of her arms. She waited, picturing Dom shuffling down the hall, pausing for the elevator car, heading up to the fourth floor. Only when she was sure he was gone did she pull the door open.
Alina passed only one other person in the corridor. By now, most people would have turned in for the night. But others were keeping vigil, because they took the vacancy of the fifth floor as some sort of omen.
As she got off the elevator, the fifth floor corridor stretched before her, yawning and wan, its lighting dimmed to half brightness for the night hours. It yielded no answers, except a phrase playing on repeat at the back of her mind. Evidence of absence is not absence of evidence? Maybe she had it turned around.
Alina forced herself to proceed, poking her head into a few of the rooms. They were as she’d seen them earlier, with personal effects left behind, tidied up somewhat by housekeeping. Among the items she noticed brimmed hats and sunglasses. So the executives had not expected to venture outside, or had left in the night.
Or they were still somewhere on the premises.
Alina rubbed her neck, her muscles tight. She padded down the hall toward the far staircase, passing the rest of the doors by, when the faintest sniff caught her ear. It might have been her own feet scuffing the carpet. She stopped and tilted her head.
Something like whimper, to her left.
She crept toward the nearest room—507—and leaned forward, eyes shut, close enough to smell the wood of the door. Nothing at first, but then a long sliding sound, followed by clinks. It sounded like someone pulling out a drawer.
Gently, Alina twisted the door latch, half expecting it to be locked. The bolt receded, and she gave the door a push as she leaned into the room, prepared to announce herself before entering. She froze. At the opposite side of the room, someone was on their knees, their back to her. It was a woman, but beyond that, Alina couldn’t tell.
She was rooting around in the dresser.
The woman yelped as she jerked herself off-balance, and wound up in a pile on the floor before the dresser.
Alina let go of the door as she brought her arms to her chest.
A familiar, incredulous voice—it was Ria staring up at her. One arm disappeared under her as she collected herself. Was she holding something?
“Ria? What the devil are you doing in here?”
Ria stood and brushing her hair behind an ear. “I might ask you the same thing. You scared the living shit out of me!”
“Well I certainly– What could you possibly be doing here at night?”
Her daughter wouldn’t meet her eyes, and continued to dust herself off. She wiped her cheek, leaving a wet streak behind. Had she been crying?
“Trying to understand why they’ve gone, I guess. It hit me when you made the announcement.” She shook her head. “Never mind, I’m tired.”
She made for the door, but Alina stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Ria, I really want to understand. Can we just …” She looked around the room. A large table stood around the corner of the L-shaped room. Alina pulled the two closest chairs over. “Please,” she said.
“Mum, it’s late.”
“Just for a moment,” Alina said. If her daughter rejected her plea, she would have to throw herself in front of the door. Anyway, why should she have to beg for her daughter’s time? “It’s been ages since we talked, and I’m not counting last night.”
Ria sighed, her shoulders softening. She slumped into the nearest chair. “It’s hardly been ages.”
Alina sat across from her daughter, who was studying her hands. She saw a young child superimposed over the young woman Ria was, a manifestation that was more difficult to dismiss with each passing year. “So what’s happening here?”
Ria shook her head.
Alina peered into her eyes. “You said something hit you. What was it? A thought? Is it something related to the meeting tomorrow?”
Ria wiped at her cheek again. Alina fought to keep her arms in her lap.
“This is Philippe’s room,” said Ria.
Philippe? Ria had never mentioned him before, yet here she was. He must be one of Sem’s team. Whoever he was, his disappearance had caused her daughter great distress.
Alina disregarded the twinge of envy.
Ria took a breath, before continuing. “We’ve been talking regularly for some time. Since Pasadena, actually.”
Ria gave her mother a look. “Talking, that’s all it was.”
Alina shook her head. “I didn’t …”
“He never talks about his work, not directly. But he’s one of the smartest people I know, Mum, seriously. We may be a select group here, but there are so many dim bulbs. Philippe is different, and I’m a good judge of character. I trust him. More importantly, I can talk to him, and he gets it.”
Alina felt like she was coming into a conversation somewhere in the middle. “Talk about what? Not about relationship stuff?”
Ria made a disgusted sound and folded her arms across her chest.
“So tell me,” Alina said.
“We talk about the mission. You know, the reason we’re here at all? Leaving the planet is the biggest thing we’ll ever do. I mean, not just in the sense of being a grand feat, but in terms of what it says about humanity. About stratification and privilege. What it says about us that some forge new territory while others … forage for survival.”
Where was this coming from? Humanity’s story hadn’t changed much since its earliest chapters, but something in Ria had.
Her daughter’s eyes unfocused. “You know, the popular songs that first incorporated samples of the Lyra Signal, they aren’t even popular anymore. The novelty of it—of a single burst of chatter from space—it’s gone. It’s commonplace. Most people don’t care. What use is a map to a new planet if most of Earth are too preoccupied with wars and water supplies?”
“Are you having second thoughts?” Alina asked. Was she complaining, or afraid?
Ria looked at her mother sharply. There was no fear there.
“I’m trying to tell you, this is what we talked about,” Ria said. “About how Pragma Art alone has the resources to build a ship using alien technology, because S.P. Sem herself is so single-minded. Probably because she’s mad. If the aliens won’t communicate with us again, we’ll go to them. And now we really are. We’ve chosen to leave home, every last one of us, and for whatever individual reasons.”
Alina didn’t want to say the wrong thing, but her mind was reeling. “Is this guilt?”
Ria stood up and went to the window as Alina watched.
“I’m not proud to say it,” she said quietly, “but I can’t wait to leave. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the implications. Hard enough when you’re part of a close-knit team, and harder still when thirty members of that team go missing.”
“Including your friend,” Alina added.
Ria turned, and sat back down across from her mother. It sounded like a crush, no matter Ria’s protestations. Maybe that’s not what she’d intended, but affinities blossomed of their own accord.
“He never mentioned anything to me about leaving Chakkaradar, if you were wondering.” She was small in her chair again.
“I can understand how you might feel disappointed,” Alina said, trying to sound helpful through the swirl of thoughts in her head. “But I honestly think it’s early to draw any conclusions from it. The exec team may have planned something that Philippe didn’t know about.” The image of a sunken boat came to mind, its dashed hull like a hazy mirage in the perilous deep. Alina masked her wince by rubbing her face. “Come to the meeting,” she said around her hands, before letting them fall to her lap. “It’s tomorrow morning at eight. Maybe there will be answers then.”
Ria sat back. “Oh, I don’t think so, Mum. That’s the last place I want to be.”
What did that mean?
Alina was afraid to push. “How about if I give you a recap after, then?” she offered. “Whenever. I’ll find you.”
Exhausted, Alina closed her eyes, and massaged them gently. Maybe she would call for a search party after the meeting, to find her daughter.