Stardust Paws and Alien Claws


I flopped down on the worn couch. Grandma’s medical bills loomed large, the debt an ever-present weight on my shoulders. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm my racing heart.

The vidscreen chimed with an incoming call. Jacob’s smiling face appeared, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners. “Hey, Cass. You got a minute?”

Despite the weight of my worries, I couldn’t help but return his warm grin. Jacob had been my closest friend since we were kids, bouncing between each other’s houses and getting into scrapes together. “For you? Always.”

“I’ve got a potential new client for the pet sitting business,” he began. “It’s…a little unconventional, but the pay is great.”

My ears perked up at the mention of good pay. “Unconventional how?”

“Well, it’s not your typical pet-sitting job,” he said evasively. “But I know you’ll love it. It’s right up your alley with all the animal and xenobiology stuff you’re into.”

I hesitated, my natural curiosity piqued but also wary of anything too out of the ordinary. “Can you give me more details?”

“Trust me, Cass, you’re going to want to take this one,” Jacob insisted. “I can’t really explain it over the comm, but just know that it’s completely safe and legitimate. It’s just for a week.”

Then Jacob named a figure that made my eyes widen. It was more than I typically made in three months of pet sitting. “Seriously? For one week?”

He nodded. “I’d take the job myself, but Daniel has that couple’s retreat planned and you know how he gets.”

I stifled a laugh at the thought of Jacob’s fiery partner throwing a fit if he tried to back out of their vacation plans. “So you’re pawning off this lucrative mystery gig to me?”

“Exactly.” Jacob shot me a pleading look. “C’mon, Cass, I’d never steer you wrong. This could be exactly what you need to get back on your feet after…” He trailed off, not needing to mention Grandma’s passing.

I worried my lower lip, weighing the pros and cons. The money was beyond tempting, but taking care of a mystery creature I knew nothing about seemed risky. Then again, when had I ever backed down from a challenge, especially one related to animals?

“Okay, I’m in,” I said, taking a deep breath. “When do I need to be ready?”

“That’s my girl!” Jacob’s smile was audible. “I’ll send over the details later today. And Cass? You’re gonna love this, I promise.”

After ending the call, I set about gathering my pet-sitting supplies—food bowls, toys, treats, and a well-worn tablet of the Xenobiology Compendium that had been my constant companion since I was a kid.

Just as I finished, the tablet pinged again – this time with a request for a teleconnection. I frowned, unfamiliar with the term. Some sort of video call maybe? With a mental shrug, I accepted.

The room spun around me in a dizzying kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. My stomach lurched as the colors coalesced and I stumbled, catching myself on a padded wall as I blinked at the strange scene before me. One moment I was in my shabby apartment, the next I found myself standing in a dimly lit lounge that looked like it belonged on an alien world.

Which, I realized with a start, it did. The patrons scattered around plush booths and tables were an eclectic mix of sentient species – some humanoid, others distinctly not. Iridescent scales, tentacles, and even a pair of guests that resembled walking houseplants.

My fingers itched to open up my tablet, research everything I could about everyone around me.

“Cassidy Bennett?” An ethereal voice made me whirl around. A tall, willowy figure stood before me, her translucent skin shimmering with hues of green and blue. Bioluminescent tendrils swayed gently as she regarded me with large, luminous eyes. An Elunian. An actual Elunian was right before me.

“I’m Liora Vesh,” she introduced herself. “This is Doanor, captain of the Koloss.” A towering figure stood next to her, his bovine features and imposing horns leaving no doubt that he was a Zemaitoz.

“W-where am I?” I stammered, my mind struggling to catch up.

“The space station Nangara 4,” Liora replied. “I must apologize for the abrupt arrival, but we are short on time.” Her expression turned serious as she ushered us to a secluded corner of the lounge.

Doanor held a chair out for me at the table, and I slid into it, head still whirling. “Short on time? What kind of job are we talking about exactly?”

Liora exchanged a glance with Doanor before replying. “It is a matter of great ecological importance. A transport mission, you could say.”

“You should know the full details before committing,” Doanor continued. “We are tasked with transporting a breeding colony of Lazamai to a new sanctuary world.”

I gasped, my eyes widening. Lazamai were an extremely rare species, their iridescent fur and delicate wings making them a favorite target for unscrupulous collectors willing to pay exorbitant sums on the black market. 

I might have had to drop out of college, but any aspiring xenobiologist would know how precarious their situation was.

“An entire colony?” I breathed, hardly daring to believe it. “But they’re almost extinct! There’s so few of them that the textbook on them is almost an empty void! How did you…?”

Liora held up a slender hand. “The details are not important right now. What matters is getting them safely to their new home before poachers catch wind of their location.”

My mind raced. If word got out about a Lazamai breeding population, every smuggler and collector in the quadrant would be after them. The potential for profit was staggering…as was the risk to the fragile creatures.

“I’ll do it,” I said firmly. “Whatever you need from me, just tell me what to do.”

Liora’s luminous eyes studied me intently. “You understand this mission must remain absolutely confidential? No one else can know about the colony, not even the rest of the crew.”

I blinked in confusion. “But if the crew can’t know, how am I supposed to explain being on the ship?” 

“We have prepared a…cover story,” Liora replied, exchanging a glance with Doanor. The hulking captain grunted and nodded.

I eyed the imposing Zemaitoz captain skeptically. Despite his fearsome visage with those wicked-looking horns, something about Doanor put me at ease. Maybe it was the steady way he held himself or the pragmatic glint in his dark eyes. 

As if sensing my appraisal, Doanor shifted, the movement rippling the thick cords of muscle across his broad chest and shoulders. 

Heat crept up my neck as I realized where my thoughts had drifted. 

Stop it.

This was hardly the time or place to be ogling an alien, no matter how…striking he appeared.

Running my hand through my hair, I met Doanor’s gaze steadily. “So this cover story…?”

He nodded once, his deep voice surprisingly gentle despite its rumbling timbre. “We will tell the crew you and I met through Stardust Souls.”

I blinked owlishly. “The…dating service? As in, we’re supposed to be…?”

“Companions, yes.” Doanor’s expression remained impassive, though I could have sworn I detected a hint of amusement in those dark eyes. “It will provide a plausible reason for your presence on my ship without arousing undue suspicion.”

“Oh. Uh, okay then.” I hoped the lounge’s dim lighting concealed the flush creeping up my cheeks. “So we just…act like we’re together? Dating, I mean?”

One furry brow arched ever so slightly. “If that is amenable to you. I assure you, I will conduct myself with the utmost propriety and respect.”

Despite his genteel words, a little thrill went through me. Pretending to be Doanor’s…companion, even if just for show? My sensible side knew it was ridiculous, but another, more reckless part couldn’t help being intrigued by the idea.

I forced a casual shrug, aiming for nonchalance. “Sure, why not? Could be fun to play act a little.” Mustering a grin, I added, “Although just to be clear, I’m not sure if you’re my type.”

The words were out before I could stop them. So much for not ogling the client. But rather than taking offense, Doanor merely chuckled, the deep rumble sending an unexpected thrill through me. 

“My humblest apologies,” he replied wryly. “I shall endeavor to be utterly resistible during our…charade.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe this crazy job wouldn’t be so bad after all. “Deal. So are we supposed to be newly dating or long-term partners or what?”

Doanor considered the question with a surprising earnestness. “Perhaps we met several months ago and have been…getting to know one another during that time.”

“Works for me.” I grinned up at him impishly. “I have to admit, you certainly know how to show a girl an interesting time on a first date – teleporting her across the galaxy with no warning.”

One side of his broad mouth went upwards. “The lady prefers a dramatic flair, I see. I shall endeavor to keep things…exciting for you.”

Was it my imagination, or did his deep voice dip into an almost husky register on that last word? I fought back another shiver, determinedly ignoring the warmth blooming in my core. 

Focus, Cassidy. This is just an act. A really, really well-acted act if Doanor keeps that up.

Liora cleared her throat delicately, snapping me out of my distracted reverie. “If you have worked out the parameters of your…relationship, we must be going.”

“Right, of course.” I sat up straighter, all business once more. “So when do we depart?”

“Immediately.” Doanor rose fluidly to his feet and extended a large hand towards me, his calloused palm rough yet oddly gentle against my skin as he helped me up. “If you are ready?”

My pulse quickened as I placed my hand in Doanor’s. Ready or not, it seemed my life was about to take a very unexpected turn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to my Update List!