“Window on Samovar” by D.J. Butler
“I miss windows,” Ellie said.
John tried not to listen to her. He mumbled, mouthing the strange words that ran as a vocabulary list across the screen of his multitool. Eetroo, he read. River. Sarovar Alpha had many rivers. It was a watery planet with two principal continents. Eez, tomb, gravesite. When was he going to have to talk about tombs in his new job as a Company accountant? He shook his head and scanned down, looking for more practical vocabulary. Et, food, that should be a useful word. But what did it mean that em plus a verb constituted a present progressive?
“John,” Ruth said. “You’re folding your hands.”
“You’re just jealous that I’m so flexible.” He grinned at his wife. “Not everyone can touch the back of their wrists with their own fingernails.”
“I’m worried your weak connective tissue will snap and you’ll pull your hands off,” she said.
“That can’t happen,” he said.
“Are you sure? That’s exactly what can happen to your heart.”
John grinned again and said nothing, to avoid the conflict.
Ruth shook her head and looked at the girls. They lay flopped on cushions on the floor of the family’s cabin of the Sarovar Company starship Oberon. The cushions were a pile of all of the cushions from the cabin’s sofa, the pillows from each of the cabin’s four beds, the dog’s sleeping cushion, and two more inflatable foam pillows spat out by the printing unit in the corner. Ruth sat on the sofa, also made of inflatable foam, and without cushions.
“Are you actually looking at pictures of windows on your multi?” she asked Ellie.
Five-year-old Ellie harrumphed.
“You can’t have windows on a starship,” Sunitha told her younger sister.
“You can,” Ellie said. “The ship that took us out to Jupiter had windows.”
“That wasn’t a starship,” Sunitha said. “It was just a shuttle.”
“It still goes in space,” Ellie said.
“But not between stars.” Sunitha dropped into her faux upper-crust British accent. “Sarovar System is forty light-years from Earth. We couldn’t just fly there directly through normal space.”
“Mom,” Ellie said, “Sunitha is now going to try to tell me about wormwood because she thinks I don’t know anything about it or about how we got to Sarovar and she knows everything.”
The lights in the cabin shifted to amber, which was a prelude to a broadcast announcement.
“I do not know everything,” Sunitha said.
Ellie folded her arms across her chest. “That’s right.”
“But I know more than you.”
“Two hours until we begin our descent to Sarovar Alpha’s Central Transit Station,” a cheerful steward’s voice spoke over the intercom. “Please finish up your meals or your exercise sessions or whatever else you’re doing. In ninety minutes, you’ll want to be strapping yourselves into your bunks, for your safety.”
“Okay.” John stood, pocketing his multi. “Who’s going to take Ani for one last walk with me? Her next stretching of the legs should be on the planet.”
“It’s not fair to Ani to use her as a punishment.” Sunitha was eight years old, but the starchy look on her face would have suited a sixty-year-old, and somewhat peevish, librarian.
“I’m not punishing anyone,” John said. “I’m just separating you. And Ani is helping me because she’s a good dog.” He looked around the small cabin. “Except that she’s not here.”
Ellie bounced to her feet, her eyes big as saucers. “Ani!”
Twenty seconds’ search confirmed that Ani was not in either sleeping closet or in the small storage locker.
“Is she at the vet?” John asked. The vet was not actually a veterinarian, but an assistant to the Ship’s Surgeon, who used an AI docbox with a canine reference database to give Ani a monthly checkup. Mostly, the veterinarian pro tem used the time to take a few vitals and then marvel at Ani’s coat, which had jumped straight from Spring brown to Autumn rust.
Ruth shook her head. “How did we miss the fact that the dog wasn’t here?”
John shrugged. “She’s pretty quiet most of the time. I just . . . I just assumed she was lying quiet in one of the corners.”
Ellie jabbed a finger at Sunitha. “You lost Ani!”
“I didn’t.” Sunitha’s fake English accent was gone.
“You took her for a walk!” Ellie’s voice climbed in pitch. “When you came back, she wasn’t with you!”
“Why didn’t you say something then? It’s your fault, too!” Sunitha jumped to her own feet.
“Maybe I didn’t notice!” Ellie squealed.
“It’s no one’s fault. These things happen with a dog.” John touched the control panel to open the door to the corridor. He had half-hoped that the family dog would be lying on her belly outside the door, tongue lolling out of a droll grin, but he was disappointed. “Sunitha, why don’t you come with me and let’s figure out where Ani ended up.”
“I’m coming too!” Ellie muscled past her sister into the corridor.
“Someone needs to wait here for Ani to come home,” John pointed out.
“Mom can do that.” Ellie looked up and down the corridor. “Where did you take Ani on her walk?”
Sunitha pointed and the girls bustled off together.
“Leave the door open,” Ruth suggested, “in case Ani comes back on her own.”
John nodded and followed the girls.
Ani coming back on her own was a reasonably likely outcome. It had happened all the time on Earth. Ani was smart enough to find her way home. She could easily do something similar here. He told the girls so.
“But a starship is dangerous, Father.” Sunitha’s posh accent was back. “There are engines and drives and all sorts of industrial machinery.”
“Ani could get hurt,” Ellie said.
They were right. That was the real reason to keep the dog close. But he also didn’t want them to worry too much.
“Fortunately, Ani is smart,” he said. “She’ll stay away from anything too dangerous. And if she encounters any real threat, she’ll use her chameleon powers to turn into the color of the spaceship floor and disappear.”
“Ani isn’t smart,” Sunitha said. “She’s a little skittish, because she’s a rescue. But she’s also way too curious for her own good. She’d walk right up to a crocodile to sniff it.”
“No crocodiles aboard the Oberon,” John pointed out. “Pretty sure.”
“Dad, she’s not a chameleon,” Ellie said. “It took her four weeks to turn red. And she skipped her winter color.”
“Which is the only color that would have helped her on this ship,” Sunitha said. “Since she can’t turn blue or yellow.”
“That color is called buff,” John said. “Blue and buff are the Company colors.”
The ceiling and upper walls of the corridor were buff. At waist height, a twenty-centimeter-tall band of buff ran along every wall; below that band, the walls and also the floors were white.
“I wish I had Ani’s sense of smell,” Ellie said. “Then I’d find her right away.”
“If you had Ani’s sense of smell,” John pointed out, “you wouldn’t need Ani.”
“We don’t need Ani,” Sunitha said. “We just like her.”
“We love her!” Ellie broke into a run. “Which way did you turn? Where did you lose her?”
“I took her up the lift.” Sunitha pointed.
“To the hyperpotties?”
“Hydroponics.” But Sunitha muttered this under her breath so her sister didn’t hear.
Ellie pressed the button and then jumped from foot to foot until the others joined her. They stood waiting for the lift.
“The most likely outcome is that we get back to the cabin and Ani beat us home,” John reminded his daughters. “Or someone on the crew finds her. Or another passenger. Her collar has our cabin number on it, for exactly this reason.”
A woman in the uniform of the Sarovar Marine Service passed. She was dressed in a jumpsuit with blue around the waist and shoulders, and otherwise buff. John nodded an amiable greeting. Could the crew help him?
“Yeah, but we have to look,” Ellie said.
“We have to look,” John agreed.
The lift arrived, they stepped inside, and Ellie pressed the button that would take them to the hydroponics floor. The lift doors closed behind them.
“Also, we don’t want to pay the fine,” Sunitha said. “Twenty dollars is a lot.”
John sighed. “Twenty dollars is for the first time the crew finds your animal walking the Oberon unaccompanied. The second time is a hundred dollars.”
“A hundred dollars!” Ellie shouted.
“Why doesn’t the Oberon have windows?” Sunitha asked.
“See?” Ellie said. “You don’t know.”
“It has an observation deck,” John said. “But it’s closed during the transit through the wormhole. Since we’re approaching the planet now, maybe it’s open. But I think only the crew looks through it.”
“So they can drive the spaceship,” Ellie said.
“No, I don’t think that’s it,” John told her. “I think sometimes they just . . . reserve some luxuries for passengers who pay more. Or important passengers.”
“You’re important,” Ellie said. “You’re a counter.”
“I mean like congressmen,” John said. “Or Company officers. The Company isn’t very democratic, really. Most companies aren’t, on the inside. Anyway, we weren’t invited, not before the wormhole and not since.”
“Why don’t they look out the window in the wormhole?” Ellie said. “Are they afraid of the worms?”
“They’re afraid of space madness,” Sunitha said.
The lift stopped and the doors opened. They exited into the end of a room full of long tubes in vertical racks, with water dripping from tube to tube and lush greenery exploding along the tops.
“Space madness sounds like something out of a bad flick,” John said.
“But it’s not wrong,” Sunitha said. “No one knows what looking at a wormhole might do to a human brain, so they don’t let people look at it.”
“A wormhole might not actually look like anything,” John said. “No one really knows what a wormhole is. It’s a mathematical construct, really.”
“It’s a mathematical construct that sucked the Oberon in at the Jupiter end and spat it out near Sarovar Epsilon.” Sunitha shrugged. “So it exists in real space in some way, and it probably looks like something.”
“What will looking at wormholes do to a dog brain?” Ellie wanted to know.
“The real question is, what will smelling wormholes do to a dog’s brain?”
John grinned at his own joke, but Ellie trembled as if she might cry. “Okay, what will smelling wormholes do?” she asked.
John picked Ellie up. “Nothing, sweetie, I was just making a bad joke about how Ani uses her nose more than her eyes. It’s not even true, Ani uses her eyes a lot, and anyway, we never looked at the wormhole or smelled it or anything, so Ani will be fine.”
“Because starships don’t have windows,” Sunitha said.
Ellie wrapped her arms around John’s neck.
“Let’s look carefully through all the hydroponics rooms,” John said. “I bet this place smells great to her. All the water and the plants. Do you remember taking Ani for walks in the early springtime, and how she likes to smell every bush and tree?”
“She can smell the sap starting to flow.” Sunitha was back to using her stiff British accent. That was probably a good sign.
“I think so,” John said. “Anyway, she could smell something. So I bet this place smells just great to her. Sap flowing through all these plants.”
“Plus if there are herbs and spices,” Ellie said.
“Maybe some herbs.” Sunitha cocked her head to one side. “Like rosemary or sage. But I don’t think the Oberon is likely to grow cinnamon or cloves or black pepper.”
“I don’t know.” John shrugged. “But it will be up on this deck if they do.”
They searched the hydroponics bays, peering under tables when they passed them, and between the growing tubes into the space with the scaffolding. They had turned a corner and nearly exhausted the ship’s growing space when they ran into a man with a thick mustache, wearing a solid blue jumpsuit. He knelt beside a cracked tube at the bottom of a growing rack. The tube had cracked, and mud slid through the fracture and dripped onto the floor. The man with the mustache was binding the tube with strips of epoxy tape, and then melting the tape with a handheld heatgun, so that it filled the crack and bound the tube together again.
He looked up at John and his girls, sweat on his brow and a frown on his face. “You looking for a little brown dog? Red-brown?”
“Ani’s not little,” Ellie said.
“Uh oh,” John said. “Does that mean she damaged the hydroponics?”
“No, no.” The man with the mustache grunted and hoisted himself onto his feet by gripping the hydroponics scaffolding. “No, this was my doing. I’m one of the ship’s gardeners. Tripped and fell right onto my own tube when I was here to cut a little parsley. But I saw your . . . medium-sized red-brown dog. She went that way.” He pointed with the heat gun.
“Thank you.” John had been through this part of the ship once or twice, but not enough to find it familiar. “Remind me what’s in that direction.”
“Tool closet,” the gardener said. “And beyond that, cargo bays.”
John thanked the gardener and then had to jog to catch his daughters, who were already running.
The tool closet was stacked high with shelves bolted to the floor and ceiling. The tools not in use were strapped to the shelves with elastic bands, or kept in plastic boxes that were bolted shut.
The doorway at the far end of the tool closet was labeled CARGO. A woman in blue and buff stood in the doorway and raised a hand to stop them. John thought that her uniform marked her as a member of the Company’s Steward Service. A steward second class, or something like that.
“You can’t access your cargo now, folks,” she said. “You need to be returning to your cabin and preparing for landing.”
“I don’t need my cargo,” John said. “In fact, there isn’t any. We only have our suitcases.” He felt like an economic refugee saying that, and in a sense, he was. He was just out of school, and they’d been very careful with their money, using only inflatable foam furniture or the cheapest printed stuff. They’d left that behind in Brooklyn, and were now taking all their worldly possessions to Sarovar Alpha to make their fortune. The only possession not already in the ship’s cabin with them was Ruth’s jewelry, which was in the Oberon’s safe, to be reclaimed with the appropriate ticket only after landing.
“I’m afraid the time for tours of the Oberon is long past.” The woman smiled, but it was a hard smile. “Time to get back to your cabin.”
“Our dog is on the loose,” John said. “We need to get her and bring her back with us, and one of the gardeners said she passed this way.”
“She has her own safety straps,” Ellie said. “For takeoff and landing.”
“What will happen if we don’t bring her back with us?” Sunitha asked. “Will she fly about the cabin on landing and be crushed?”
“No,” John said. “But we should bring her back. We still have, what, an hour?”
“Go back to your cabins,” the steward said. “If your dog is wearing the right ID collar, we’ll find her and bring her back to you.”
“For a hundred dollars!” Ellie was almost shouting.
“Look, your dog won’t die,” the woman said.
“One hundred percent?” Sunitha asked.
“Well, nothing is one hundred percent,” the steward said.
“So she might die?” Now Ellie was shouting.
“She’ll probably just be really surprised and shaken up,” the woman said. “Maybe bruised. The worst likely outcome is a broken leg. But your dog will survive. But you can’t be running around the cargo bays now.”
“A broken leg?” Ellie screamed.
“Ani is nervous,” Sunitha said, lecturing the woman at high speed. “She was a rescue, she’s skittish. She won’t like anyone to help her who isn’t us. And she’ll be terrified.”
“Listen,” John said. “If a crew member finds the dog, I’m out a hundred bucks. I’ll pay you ten just to let us go look through the Cargo Bays.”
“Just the Cargo Bays?” the woman asked.
“Well,” John admitted, “I plan to keep searching until I find her or the time is really up.”
The steward looked carefully around the Tool Shed, then smiled. “The first time your dog was found outside the cabin, how much was that worth to you?”
“Twenty it is.” John handed over the cash.
“Be fast,” the steward. “The ship is bigger than you think.”
The Cargo Bays were much bigger than John remembered from his earlier tours. Crates were pinned to shelves with elastic webbing if they belong to passengers or crew, but the Company also had large amounts of cargo stowed here. The Company’s crates were bigger, of uniform size, and locked together with pins and latches built right into the crates. Clear plastic film over the stacked crates served as a backup mechanism to hold the cargo together during landing.
They ran through two large bays, looking between rows of crates and not seeing their dog. The girls panted from the running, but did their best to call, “Ani! Ani!” as they ran. When they reached the end of the second bay, and John realized that there were two more, he stopped.
“Look.” He pointed at an unattended hydraulic mule. “Let’s take a ride.”
The girls attempted at first to climb onto the lifting carriage, but John dragged them onto the seat beside himself.
“But if you lift us, we can see better,” Sunitha pointed out.
“You don’t need to see better,” John said. “Just keep calling.”
He drove the mule as fast as he could without losing control of it, both his daughters squeezed under one of his long arms. John had been headed for the Space Force Academy when a physical exam had detected his Marfan’s Syndrome, and he liked driving vehicles of all kind. He wove the mule back and forth across the aisles, maneuvering easily around stray crates standing unpacked on the floor and the occasional frowning Company crew member.
No sign of Ani.
But the last cargo bay ended in a large access door. It was big enough for the mule, or even a truck to enter, but the door was shut, and the word RESTRICTED was printed on it in large letters at eye level, above a wide window.
John first tried to drive the mule toward the door, to see if it opened. It didn’t, so he stopped the mule and dismounted to examine a control panel beside the door.
“Hey,” a voice called. “Are you crew?”
John smiled as he turned. Two men in blue and buff were bolting a crate into place a few meters away. One stood and walked toward John. John was tall, at one hundred ninety centimeters, but he was also very thin—Marfan’s. This man looked down to meet John’s gaze and probably outweighed him by fifty kilos of solid beef. His eyes looked singularly unimaginative, and his lips were twisted into a surprised frown.
“No,” John told him. “We’re passengers, but our dog is lost, and we’re looking for her.”
He looked through the window and saw more stacked crates, snapped together and wrapped in clear film. The nearest crates had large printed text on the outside: KUPARI.
That was a gun manufacturer.
The Oberon was carrying crates full of guns.
“That’s restricted,” the beefy crewman said. “I can’t let you in there. No way your dog’s in there, anyway.”
“Ani! Ani!” the girls continued to call.
“Are there any unlocked doors that let into that space?” John asked. “Not for me. I mean, my dog’s clever, is there any possible way in there she might have found. I want to get her back to the cabin for her safety, but also to get her out of your way.”
Big Beef shook his head. “No doors that aren’t locked.”
“Hey, did you say ‘dog’?” The other crewman stood and walked over. He was wiry, and much shorter. Like John, he had oversized hands, but his knuckles were visibly scarred and callused.
The light in the cargo bays shifted to amber.
“Yeah,” John said. “Kind of medium-sized. Face looks kind of like a lab’s, but built more like a pit bull. White collar.”
“Reddish brown fur?” Knuckles asked.
“That’s her!” Ellie and Sunitha yelled together.
“You have thirty minutes remaining, passengers,” the cheerful voice announced over the intercom. “As of now, all recreational and dining facilities are closed. If you are not receiving attention from the Ship’s Surgeon or a member of his staff, you must now return immediately to your cabins and prepare for landing.”
“You heard the man,” Big Beef.
“The dog,” John said. “You saw the dog.”
Knuckles sighed and pointed at the far end of the cargo bay at a lift. “Your dog went up that lift about five minutes ago.”
“How does a dog go up a lift?” John asked.
“Ani is smart!” Ellie said.
“Your dog was in the lift, sniffing around,” Knuckles said. “Someone summoned the lift up.”
“What’s up?” John asked.
“Just the one floor,” Knuckles told him.
“Go back to your cabins,” Big Beef said.
“Yes.” John nodded. “We’re on our way back to the cabins now. Come on, girls.”
He scooped the girls into his wake, one big hand on each child’s shoulder, and scooted them along toward the lift.
Why was the Company shipping guns to Sarovar? The human presence on the planet was minimal, just the Company itself, and the descendants of a few colonization efforts that had arrived in-system a few years before the Company had.
Were the indigenous species hostile? John gulped. He hadn’t read about conflict with the Weavers or the Riders or others.
He shook his head. There were plenty of animal species on Sarovar Alpha. The guns didn’t have to be intended for use against sentients, they could be for defense against the Sarovar analogs of lions and coyotes and bears and crocodiles. Which, since the planet apparently teemed with life, must exist.
On the lift’s control panel, there was just one button above CARGO BAYS. It was labeled OBSERVATION. John was still reading it when Ellie pressed the button.
“The skinny man said up,” she reminded him.
The lift closed and hummed softly as it hoisted them up to the ship’s highest level.
“Just remember that we haven’t been invited to this floor,” he reminded his girls.
“You can bribe them like you bribed the steward,” Sunitha suggested.
“Whoa, whoa,” John said. “I didn’t bribe anyone. And we don’t need to say that I did, especially to your mom. Or to the crew.”
“Maybe we can get another car and drive it around,” Ellie suggested.
John chuckled uneasily. “Let’s just focus on asking about Ani, shall we?”
The lift stopped and the door opened. Two crewmen in blue and buff stood facing John and the girls. They were broad-shouldered and they held stun batons; one has a shaved head and the other had long blond hair.
“Uh oh,” Sunitha said.
“It’s time to get back into your cabin,” Bald said. “Sir.”
John sighed. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m just looking for my dog.”
The two men looked at each other.
“Did I hear the word ‘dog’?” called a gravelly voice from the next room, out of sight.
“John?” Ruth called.
He heard a dog’s bark.
“Let him in,” the gravelly voice ordered.
“John!” Ruth called. “Girls! Come look out the windows with me!”
John and the girls moved forward from the lift chamber into the larger room, the two armed men stepping aside. Ani met them as they entered, leaping up onto one girl and then the other, tongue wagging in excitement.
The room was circular and had windows all along its outer walls. Was there shielding that closed to protect them while the ship traveled through the wormhole? But John could spare little time for the question, because through the windows, he got his first actual look at Sarovar Alpha, and it took his breath away.
The planet was blue with water. Like Earth, it luxuriated in oceans—more ocean than Earth had, in fact. Both continents, Wellesley and Napoleon, were visible. The Oberon appeared to be approaching the planet from its nighttime side, so to the right, John saw forest and mountains and plains on the northern continent, and rocks and desert on the southern, all illuminated by bright daylight; to his left, he saw darkness on the face of the waters and the land alike, with precious few lights twinkling here and there.
Beyond the planet he saw both its moons, circling as if about to dive behind the planetary mass, both fully light by the sun.
Ruth pressed against his side. “Ani made it up here on her own somehow.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. “We’ve been tracking her.”
“They read her collar and called me up,” Ruth said. “I beat you by just a minute or two.”
“I’m Captain Morris.” The captain was a thin man with curly hair and a slight stoop. He offered, and he and John shook hands. “Please, take a few minutes to enjoy the view before you return to your cabins.”
“Thank you,” John murmured.
“Ani isn’t nervous at all,” Sunitha said. She was scratching the dog behind the ears. Ani sat, tongue lolling out. “She just had an adventure, and she’s totally calm.”
“Girls.” John pointed out the windows. “Look.”
“We found Ani!” Ellie jumped in delight.
“I know.” John stooped and gathered the dog into his arms. She was heavy, but he wanted to take the distraction away from his daughters. He grabbed Ellie by the top of her head and physically turned her around to face the planet. “Now look out the window. It might be a long time before you see a sight like this again.”
“Okay,” Sunitha said, “so the starship has windows. I never said I knew everything.”
“Shh,” John said. “Just look.”
Copyright © 2022 by D.J. Butler
D.J.(“Dave”) Butler grew up in swamps, deserts, and mountains. After messing around for years with the practice of law, he finally got serious and turned to his lifelong passion of storytelling. He now writes adventure stories for readers of all ages, plays guitar, and spends as much time as he can with his family. He is the author of numerous novels including the Witchy War series, the Cunning Man series (with Aaron Michael Ritchey), In the Palace of Shadow and Joy, and more. “A Window on Sarovar” is set in the world of his upcoming novel Abbott in Darkness.