“Grandpa, tell me a bedtime story!”
The old man shifted in his seat, looking left across the padded armrest and into the green eyes of the little girl snuggled into the slightly reclined seat next to his. He smiled kindly, pulling one of the complimentary blankets out from the underside compartment of his granddaughter’s seat. He double-checked her lap harness out of habit before throwing the soft, thin blanket over her head, making her giggle.
“A bedtime story, eh? Aren’t you a little big for those?” he said, putting some exaggerated doubt into his voice.
“Noooo~!” the little girl sing-songed back to him as she pulled the blanket down from around her head, making a mess of her long red hair.
The old man hushed the child and tapped a button on the arm of his seat, dimming the overhead light of their section. The rest of the Genesis Starliner’s occupants were already beginning to recline back in chairs. The hostesses strolled the aisles, offering warm drinks, pillows, and some comfort snacks to the passengers as the tenth hour of the ship’s long voyage began, and the aisle lights dimmed to indicate the start of a sleep-cycle.
The old man took two small cups of warm herbal tea, giving one to his granddaughter and sipping slowly on the other one. His granddaughter blew a few times on the surface of the water—a habit she’d picked up from his son, no doubt—before taking a cautious sip. She made a surprised face as she tasted the sweetened flavors of ragdellion and chamomile. “It’s good.”
“It is good,” the old man agreed softly, leaning his seat back a bit to be closer to eye-level with his reclined granddaughter. “So, you want a bedtime story?”
“Uh-huh. Daddy always says you have the best stories,” the girl stated matter-of-factly, as though she always believed every word her father spoke.
“Hm. I haven’t told a bedtime story in thirty years. Maybe I’m too old for those,” he said with a sly grin.
His granddaughter giggled, watching him with expectant eyes. The old man sighed slowly, pondering the job ahead of him for a few moments and collecting his thoughts. “All right, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story that’s older than you, older than me, and older than the both of us put together.
Have you ever heard of a Tajar?” he asked, a small smile spreading across his wizened features.
“No! What’s a Tajar?”
“Well,” he said ponderously, “they’re sort of like a tiger, and a bit like a gerifax, and something like a skitter, but nothing at all like a bear.”
“What’s a bear?” asked his granddaughter.
“Nothing like a Tajar, that’s for certain,” he replied with a wink, earning a laugh from the little girl. “A Tajar is a creature that lives in spaceports, around ports, under ports, over ports, and anywhere a port can be. And they’re magic, just like the Rygellians.”
“The Rygellians aren’t magic, grandpa, they’re psychic,” the little girl corrected him with a serious expression.
“Fine, psychic. The Tajar is psychic, just like the Rygellians, but it’s a special kind of psychic. See, if you see a Tajar once, you’ll forget you saw it. But, if you see it twice, you’ll forget you forgot, and that could be quite fatal.”
The little girl listened expectantly as he continued the tale. “Tajars love, more than anything, to dance and frolic in the moonlight, and when the moon is full, it fills them so full of folly that they can’t help but dance.
“Well, on this particular night, in this particular port, there lived a Tajar. He lived somewhere between the top of a landing strut and the bottom of the blackness of space, in a little hiding place. He always hid from the spacers in the space port, because if a spacer sees a Tajar, they always forget what they’re doing when they saw the Tajar, and that could cause problems.
‘Well, on this particular night, in this particular sky, the moon was full and bright, and the Tajar was filled with folly, so he climbed out of his hiding place, despite all the spacers around, and he danced in the moonlight.”
The old man became animated, waving his hands in the air as he spoke. “The Tajar danced left, and he danced right, up, and down, and all around the port, and one of the spacers saw him once, and the pilot of a Starliner nearly saw him twice, and almost forgot to forget what he looked like.”
“What happened to the spacer that saw him?” asked the little girl.
“Well, he forgot what the Tajar looked like, but he also forgot what he was doing and lifted off and left his whole cargo behind on the landing pad!” The old man chuckled, and the little girl’s laughter turned into a yawn. “Now, have you ever heard of a Space Ranger?” asked the old man.
“Well, they’re as big as a mountain and twice as bold, and make every spacer do just as they’re told. And at this particular port, there lived a Space Ranger, who ranged across the spaces of the sector. He saw the Tajar dancing in the moonlight while the spacers were in port. He came across the spaces of the sector and said ‘Tajar, Tajar!’, and the Tajar replied, ‘Yes, Sir!’, because Tajars know you must be polite to Space Rangers.
“The Space Ranger said ‘Tajar, Tajar, don’t you know you’re not supposed to come out of your hiding place while the spacers are in port?’, and the Tajar replied, ‘Yes, Sir!’. The Space Ranger took Tajar back to his hiding place and said, ‘Don’t let me catch you doing this again!’, and the Tajar replied, ‘Yes, sir!’
The little girl smiled sleepily, her eyes drooping, and the old man continued. “Well, the Tajar did as he was told, and for four whole cycles he stayed in his hiding place when the spacers were in port. But, on the fifth cycle, the moon was so big, and the moon was so bright, and the Tajar was so full of folly, that he simply couldn’t help himself, so he left his hiding place and he danced in the moonlight. He danced to the left, and he danced to the right, up, and down, and all around the port. And a spacer saw him once, and a Cutlass pilot nearly saw him twice.
“Well, the Space Ranger, who ranges across the spaces of the sector, saw the Tajar dancing in the moonlight while the spacers were in port. He came across the spaces of the sector and stood right before the Tajar and said ‘Tajar, Tajar!’ and the Tajar replied, ‘Yes, Sir!’ because Tajars know you must be polite to Space Rangers. The Space Ranger said, ‘Tajar, Tajar, don’t you remember that I told you not to dance in the moonlight when the spacers are in port?’, and the Tajar replied, ‘Yes, Sir.’
The girl’s head bobbed once, her eyes fluttering. The old man’s voice softened down lower, lulling his granddaughter with his words. “So the Space Ranger took the Tajar, and he took him back to his hiding place, and he used his Space Ranger magic and some needle and thread, and he put a tuck in the Tajar’s right front leg, and a tuck in the Tajar’s left front leg, and he put him back in his hiding spot. But, of course, it was magic, so it didn’t hurt. The Space Ranger said ‘There. Now you’re too short, so you can’t climb out of your hiding spot, and you will stay there until you’ve learned your lesson…”
The girl’s eyes were closed, her breathing even. The old man leaned down, tucking the blanket in around her, and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “… and that is the story of how the Tajar got his tucks.”
The lights in the starliner flickered, suddenly, and the indicator light for fastening belts and harnesses blinked on. The steady voice of the captain filtered through hidden speakers, “Attention passengers, we’re making a brief and unscheduled stop, please remain seated while we sort out the issue.”
The old man glanced out the nearby viewport, noting two approaching vessels. He recognized the silhouette of a Cutlass, and frowned as the smaller ships moved overhead and out of his view. He tapped on the seatback in front of him, pulling up a console, and checked their location. They were hours away from any port, but he recognized this region of space. To say he was familiar with it was a bit of an understatement, in fact.
The Starliner shuddered, and there was a metallic thud that echoed through the hull of the ship: the unmistakable sound of a boarding seal. The old man stood up and turned to the nearest passenger, a young woman who seemed unconcerned by the stop. “Miss, would you watch my granddaughter for a moment?”
The woman nodded slowly, peering over the seat at the little girl, who still was sleeping. The old man was already gone, walking out of the passenger holding area and into the hallway connecting to the small washrooms, storage areas, and the bridge of the ship. A hostess in a crisp white uniform stood at the entry to the hallway, between the storage areas and the passenger area. She smiled pleasantly and held up one hand, barring his way forward. “Pardon me, passengers are not allowed beyond this point while our crew is dealing with an issue.”
The old man reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, retrieving a worn identification badge. “UEE, Two-hundred-seventy-seventh Rangers. Why are we being boarded?”
The hostess stared at his badge for a moment before dropping her voice lower. “Pirates. They’re speaking with the captain right now.”
The old man rolled his eyes, tucking the badge back in his jacket. “Stay here,” he said quietly, and stalked down the hallway to the doors to the bridge.
Arriving at the doors to the bridge, he tapped a side panel, opening the doors with a soft hiss of clean hydraulics, and revealing a half-dozen wildly dressed ruffians, all armed with ballistic pistols and rifles. The old man took in the sight carefully, noting the colors and insignias adorning the group; a wild orange-on-black theme, and a a razorwire halo around a white skull.
The crew of the Starliner were busily handing over crates from the storage areas, full of the passenger’s effects and valuables, and the two Starliner pilots stood to one side, quietly conversing with the obvious captain of the pirate crew. He stood a head shorter than the rest of the crew, with long white hair that ran down to the middle of his back, and both his hands ended in cybernetic graspers.
The old man stared at the graspers for a moment, before he strode confidently and quickly into the room. The pirates hesitated, caught off guard by the old man walking past all of them, standing nearly six feet tall with a scraggly grey head of hair and a short-cropped beard. The old man stepped right up behind the captain of the pirate crew and drew a energy pistol from the concealed shoulder holster, pressing it into the captain’s back as he turned to look over his shoulder.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay in your hiding place?”
The pirate captain’s eyes widened in surprise, and he responded without thinking, “Yes, Sir,” before he squinted, searching the old man’s face with something like recognition. “By the black, Ranger Jentry, is that you?”
“What did I tell you? Live a better life, find a new profession, and stop with the raiding.”
“Yes, Sir, that y’ did, though I’d hoped you’d forget,” the pirate captain said.
“I forgot to forget,” the old man replied coolly.
“Times are tough, you know. UEE’s fallin’ apart, and it’s hard to make ends meet with the clean jobs,” the pirate captain said quickly.
The old man scowled. “I thought I’d seen the last of you. So, what’s the play this time?”
“Figured a little holdup wasn’t hurtin’ nobody. We’d ‘a let this ship on her merry way, after relieving her of her valuables. Woulda drifted on by if I’d known you were on it, Ranger,” The ragged pirate said.
The other pirates, meanwhile, looked nervous, glancing between the crew and their captain. The old man shifted on his heels, positioning the pirate captain between him and the crew. “Tell your boys to put the cargo back. Let ‘em know that they’ll find that there’s a nice shipment of dark matter coming in from the Kellog system on a Hull-D in two cycles, and they’ll find that dark matter is worth a hell of a lot more than some holo vids of people’s vacations and a few nice pairs of clothes.”
The pirate captain’s eyes widened. “You’re tellin’ me to go rob another ship?”
The Ranger smirked. “That Hull-D is shipping cargo made by slave labor in a penal camp. I don’t much abide slavery, even if it’s criminals.”
The pirate captain fell silent for a moment, before smiling. “Why, Ranger Jentry, you’ve gone a bit black hat on me!”
“Captain, who’s this old spacer with the smirk and the gun?” asked one of the pirate crew, gesturing with his pistol.
The captain turned on his crew, scowling. “Ain’t you ever heard of Ranger Jentry, Finley?”
“No, captain,” replied the pirate. The rest of the crew, however, all murmured amongst themselves.
“I’d imagened he’d be bigger, by the way the boss told the stories.”
“Jentry? I thought he was dead?”
The pirate captain grinned a sly grin, stepping forward and opening his arms wide. “Put back the cargo, boys. We’ve got a bigger score waiting for us. And, while you’re putting back the loot, I’ll tell ya a story. It’s older than you, older than me, and older than the both of us put together…”