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Stardust Paws and Alien Claws: Chapter 2

Doanor

The lounge door slid shut behind us with a hiss as I blinked in the harsh artificial lighting of the corridor, my eyes adjusting after the dimness inside. 

I realized I was still holding Cassidy’s hand. Her smaller fingers were entwined with mine, her palm slightly damp against my leathery skin. A strange sensation stirred within me – not unpleasant, but unfamiliar. 

Reluctantly, I let her go.

“I’m afraid my duties prevent me from accompanying you further.” Liora’s luminescent gaze flickered between Cassidy and me. “But I have the utmost faith you’ll manage just fine.” She offered a slight smile and placed a hand on Cassidy’s arm. “You’re in capable hands.”

Cassidy grinned. “Thank you for all your help, Liora. I really appreciate you taking a chance on me.”

“Of course.” Liora inclined her head. “I’ll leave you two to prepare for your journey.” With a final glance at us, she turned and continued down the corridor, her tendrils fading into the distance.

Well. Now it was just the two of us.

Clearing my throat, I forced myself to meet that inquisitive blue gaze.

“We should get moving. The docking bay isn’t far.”

We set off through the bustling concourse, Cassidy sticking close by my side. I could feel the nervous energy radiating off her in waves as she took in the sights and sounds of the space station. 

Humans hadn’t been around for long. Less than twenty of their years had passed since they’d joined the rest of us up here in space. What did this little human think of it all?

A passing Maklav merchant barked out an advertisement, his voice like gravel in a blender. Cassidy jumped, her shoulder bumping against my arm. I resisted the urge to put a protective hand on the small of her back to steady her. That would be overstepping our agreed boundaries.

As we continued, a pair of towering Brizlak lumbered past, their hulking frames nearly scraping the ceiling. Their scaled hides glistened like burnished metal, reflecting the harsh station lights. One of them paused, fixing us with its beady black eyes as mandibles clicked in our direction.

“Sssmall one,” it rumbled, the words reverberating through my bones. I tensed, prepared to shield Cassidy if needed. But the Brizlak merely cocked its head, studying her with curiosity before continuing on its way.

Cassidy exhaled shakily. “What was that about?”

“Don’t take it personally,” I said gruffly. “The Brizlak are an ancient race. To them, humans are little more than infants stumbling around the galaxy.”

She frowned but didn’t argue. Smart girl. As we rounded the next junction, a cluster of merchants hawked their wares – exotic fruits, glittering jewelry, even a caged Narvian eel that slithered and hissed menacingly. 

One particularly persistent Xendryl trader noticed us and slithered over, her multitude of eyestalks swiveling. “You, ssssir! A fine specccimen like yourssself mussst want a rare treassure for your lovely mate.”

Before I could respond, she thrust a pulsating orb into Cassidy’s hands. It throbbed with an inner glow, like a heartbeat.

“Behold! A living gem from the cavernsss of Tycalia 5. Guaranteed to bring eternal prossssperity and pleassssure to any union.” The Xendryl’s eyes gleamed greedily.

Cassidy recoiled, nearly dropping the orb. “Oh, uh, no thanks. We’re not – I mean, he’s not my -”

I snatched the orb back and shoved it toward the merchant. “We’ll pass.”

The Xendryl tsked in disappointment but slithered away, undeterred. Cassidy shot me a sidelong glance as we continued on. 

“So…no rare treasures for your ‘lovely mate’ today?”

I snorted. “You’d do better not to accept gifts from a Xendryl. Especially ones that seem alive.” 

Her nose crinkled. “Ew, yeah, no thanks. Still, it was a…unique offer.”

Unique was one word for it. My gaze drifted briefly to those full lips, now curved in an amused smile. I jerked my eyes away, refocusing on our path ahead. This human female was proving quite the distraction.

But maybe she was more focused than I thought.

Cassidy nodded, absorbing the information. “You said there were other crew members aboard? What are they like?”

I eyed the human female skeptically as she inquired about the crew. Who would she encounter the most during her stay? My mind immediately went to Kylari, 

She had been part of my crew longer than anyone, sticking by my side through the roughest jobs and tightest scrapes. Loyal to a fault, with a cantankerous demeanor masking a deep well of wisdom. If anyone could be trusted around the fragile human, it was her.

“Kylari’s been the engineer aboard this bucket of bolts for decades,” I began gruffly. “There’s a streak of mischief there, but she knows these systems better than anyone. You’ll want to steer clear when she’s elbow-deep in repairs, otherwise she’s liable to mistake you for another faulty component and start tinkering.”

A small smile played across Cassidy’s lips at that. Good, she had a sense of humor about her predicament. The female would need it to survive aboard my ship.

“She’s got a real soft spot for machinery though,” I continued. “Treats the Koloss like her own kin. You’d do well to show the old girl some respect if you want to stay on her good side.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Cassidy said, unconsciously mirroring my gesture by trailing her fingers along the wall. “What about the others? Any…oversized reptiles or tentacled horrors I should watch out for?”

I barked out a harsh laugh before I could stop myself. “You’ve got a decent grasp of things already, little female.”

Who else would she run into? 

“Zylith is a Novalian – big brute with rocky grey skin and horns protruding from his skull. Doesn’t say much, but he’s strong as a granite boulder. Hauls most of the heavy crates around like they’re made of polystyrene.”

Cassidy’s eyes widened slightly at the description. I couldn’t blame her – Novalians cut an intimidating figure.

“Then there’s the twin Arenkar pilots, Jharra and Jhessi,” I continued. “Inseparable pair, those two. Tiny little guys, but fast and dexterous enough to make up for it when we’re dog-fighting raiders. Which happens more often than I’d like…”

My voice trailed off as we entered the docking bay. The immense chamber echoed with the din of machinery and the shouts of dock workers. Craft of every conceivable size and shape lined the hangar, being loaded or unloaded by scurrying alien forms.

And there, at the far edge of the chaos, was the docking port to Koloss. My ship.

“That’s her,” I said with a touch of pride, gesturing to the battered old hauler visible through the portholes. “The Rusejoss Koloss. Not much to look at, I know, but she’s sturdy as they come.” 

Cassidy was staring around us with open fascination. I watched the expressions playing across her face, mesmerized by the way her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled. 

A sudden commotion nearby shattered the moment. Shouts and screeches echoed through the hangar as a small, bright pink furry creature came barreling past, chased by a feathered child no bigger than a human toddler.

“Narko! Narko, come back!” the kid was squealing in a high-pitched tongue.

The fur-ball – some kind of pet, by the looks of it – was zipping between the feet of startled dock workers with remarkable agility. A couple of burly reptiliods made grabs for it, only to come up empty-handed as it slipped through their clutches.

It was heading right for us. Without thinking, I stepped forward and braced myself, arms out to try and cut off its escape route.

The little blur shot between my legs with a squeak. I whirled around just in time to see it scamper under a hovering pallet stacked high with crates.

“Oh no you don’t,” I growled, dropping to all fours.

“Doanor, wait!” Cassidy called out behind me.

But I was already crawling after the furry menace, my larger frame making the tight space even more cramped. Gritting my teeth, I squeezed further underneath, boxes scraping against my back and horns.

There! I could see the creature’s tail flicking around a corner up ahead. Putting on an extra burst of speed, I lunged –

And came face-to-face with a very startled Cassidy, who had circled around to try and head it off.

We collided with a muffled thump, our bodies pressed together in the confined space. Cassidy let out a surprised gasp as I landed half on top of her, our faces mere inches apart.

Sweet celestials, she was even more stunning up close. Those ocean-blue eyes, those full lips parted in surprise, the intoxicating floral scent of her hair…

Somewhere behind us, the alien child was still wailing for its pet. Right, I had a job to do here. Forcing myself to snap out of my daze, I opened my mouth to apologize.

But Cassidy beat me to it. Reaching above her head, she pulled the critter from between my horns. “I’ve got it!” she hissed, holding up the squirming furball triumphantly.

The creature let out a pathetic mewling sound, its huge eyes blinking at me pleadingly. 

No such luck, critter.

“Nice work,” I rumbled, my voice coming out lower than I intended. Our faces really were disconcertingly close together…

Cassidy seemed to realize this at the same moment, a rosy flush spreading across her cheeks. “We, uh, we should probably get out of here,” she mumbled.

“Right. Yes, of course.” I tried to shift backwards, only to smack my horns against the low ceiling with a dull clang. “Ugh, damn it…”

Gritting my teeth, I awkwardly maneuvered my bulk around until I could start inching out from under the pallet. Cassidy followed, still clutching the pet protectively.

By the time we emerged, the wailing child had been joined by what I assumed were its frantic parents – a towering feathered Drean and its smaller mate. As soon as they spotted Cassidy, they swarmed over, beaks clicking in obvious relief.

“Narko! You found our little one!” the larger Draen, scooping the furry creature from Cassidy’s arms and cradling it protectively.

Its mate was fussing over the child, smoothing its feathers and making soothing noises. The little one sniffled.

“Thank you, thank you!” the parent gushed at us, feathers quivering. “We were so worried when Narko slipped its leash and ran off. It’s only a juvenile, you see, and gets confused so easily in the crowds…”

“Think nothing of it,” I rumbled, dusting myself off and trying to regain some semblance of dignity after my undignified scrambling. “Glad we could reunite you.”

The family dipped their wings in a strange bowing motion before scuttling off, the child waving a tiny farewell over its parent’s shoulder. Cassidy watched them go with a warm smile.

“You’re a natural with animals,” I found myself saying gruffly. “That’ll come in handy with this job.”

She turned that radiant smile on me, and for a moment I felt my hearts skip a beat. “Well, I do love all furry little critters,” she said lightly. “Even the ones that give me the runaround first.”

There was a mischievous glint in her eye that sent a jolt through me. Doanor, you hopeless fool…this human female is going to be the death of you.

I jerked my head towards the Koloss. “Cargo bay’s through here. I’ll show you around.” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “And later, I’ll take you to where the enclosure is set up.”

As I led the way up the ramp into the battered old freighter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this routine job was shaping up to be anything but.

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