This book belongs to a series. I have currently written the second book too, and plan to finish the third by December. The first book will be available up here and through Smashwords, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony for free. The following books will be available for $3.99 through those same retailers.
Jane sat on the window ledge, her face angled up towards the night sky outside. She watched the stars high above in the pristine, clear sky. She watched how they twinkled, she watched how they lit up the land below.
She set her eyes on the sight above and she did not shift her gaze once. Even though she had work to do, even though she should prepare herself some food or at least make an attempt to clean her house, she just sat there and stared up at those stars. She often did so, almost every single night. The stars never changed, and neither did she.
Jane didn't sleep, Jane just stared at stars.
They called her plain Jane. Or at least that was what the humans had started calling her, and it hadn't been long until everyone, aliens and all, had picked up the trend. Because, after all, she was quite plain. From her appearance, to her job, to the fact she spent every night staring at the stars: oh yes, Jane was very plain. There was no excitement in her life, there was no growth, there wasn't a great deal of stimulation or challenge; it was just the same old thing day in and day out.
But there was a trick to Jane: while every night she did nothing but sit there and quite fixedly and boringly stare up at the stars, her mind moved. In Jane's mind as she sat on that window ledge and stared up at the night sky above, she would travel all the way across the Galaxy. She would do the things that she never did in real life. She saved star systems from corrupt and crazed space pirates. She invented wonderful new technologies and thought up solutions to some of the Galaxy's most complex problems. She traveled to star systems and galaxies that were beyond the reach of all others. And of course she always fell in love. But despite her night-time adventures, her days were always the same: Jane just went to work. Plain old boring Jane. Nothing new or interesting ever happened at work, and nothing new or interesting ever happened to Jane.
The view of the stars above stayed the same and so did Jane.
But every single night Jane's imagination moved, grew, and always created the most fantastic and wondrous adventures. So Jane closed her eyes, a small smile spread across her lips, and Jane opened up the doors of her mind.
Jane sat at her desk, staring down at the console in front of her. Blue and green holographic images moved around almost an inch above the console display panel, and Jane stared at them glumly, her head propped up on one hand. She had been staring at the same damn images for almost the past hour and her eyes were now starting to go blurry.
Around Jane her co-workers chatted, laughed, and went about doing far more interesting work than that which Jane was always lumped with. The beautiful, blue, elegant Hoya that sat alongside Jane, who all the other humans called Mandy, even though her real name was about three sentences long, was chatting and laughing about the exploits she had gotten up to the night before.
'You should have seen what he said to those new recruits,' she laughed, her blue lips spreading wide as her very large eyes sparkled.
'Well, I suppose the rookies weren't expecting a lesson from a professional,' Tarta, who came from an insect-like race, suddenly spread his pincers and chuckled wildly.
Jane knew who they were talking about, because there was only one person they ever talked about: Lucas Stone. He was the shining star of the Security Division of the Galactic Force. He was the student, the rookie, who had once thwarted an attack on the Galactic Union Senate. The rookie who had once single-handedly saved an entire battle cruiser by heroically plugging an engine leak with his very armor. He was the man who had practically rewritten the book on security procedures adopted throughout the Galactic Force. And he was the man that everybody knew would be picked to lead the new expedition into the outer rim. In fact, it felt like when it came to the Galactic Force, he was the only one anybody ever talked about, anyone ever acknowledged, and anybody ever admired. Lucas Stone was it.
And Jane, Jane was just plain. And she was also getting seriously bored, her blurry eyes starting to give her a headache.
'I heard from one of the med students that they aren't just going to give the new expedition to Lucas, they're going to let him pick whatever ship he wants, and whatever crew he wants too,' Mandy continued, her long tail flicking around as if she was gesticulating with it.
Tarta just nodded sternly. 'Of course, that makes perfect sense. Lucas is the best we have got, he will know how to make that mission a success.'
Jane fought against the urge to close her eyes, but couldn't quite manage it. It was just so terribly boring. And people always accused her of being boring. Fair enough, she certainly had not gone out last night to see Lucas Stone give an impromptu lesson on how to save the Galaxy to a couple of first-year security students. No, she had stayed at home. But while she had stayed at home, her mind had not. She had traveled the Galaxy last night, she had pretended she was a princess, someone special and unique, someone with some incredible power, someone who a crafty and malingering ancient race had wanted to kidnap. But then, in the nick of time a daring hero had come to her rescue. Last night her hero had been xeno doctor; capable, kind, and willing to go up against an entire hoard of robots in order to save her.
But now she was back at work and even though she was fighting it, her mind was starting to wander.
Jane did not sleep. But unless she was careful, her mind would start to wander. She had heard about the dreams that humans had, and she had even learned about something called day-dreaming. Well Jane was a day-dreamer. A serious, serious day-dreamer. It was as if even though her body was still awake and her senses worked after a fashion, most of the rest of her mind would draw in on itself and conduct rather epic and awesome adventures whenever she closed her eyes for too long.
She valiantly tried to open her eyes again, but found herself closing them in another second.
She could feel her cheek bunch up against her hand, her mouth being pulled open in a probably highly unattractive manner as her head nodded forward again, her muscles relaxing as her body tried to succumb to the boredom and send her off into a daydream.
But just as her head nodded forward again, someone jabbed her hard in the back.
She spluttered, making a choking, startled noise halfway between a hiccup and a yelp.
'Wake up, Plain Jane,' Mandy whipped her tail in front of Jane's face, probably the very same tail that had poked Jane in the first place. 'We've got company.'
Jane, taking a hearty sniff, blinked rapidly and finally looked up at the door on the other side of the room.
Talk of the devil.
It was Lucas Stone.
He was standing just inside the doorway, one of his trademark smiles on his trademark face. The head of the Administrative Division was standing next to him.
It was such a surreal scene that Jane thought she had accidentally wandered off into a daydream after all. All of her colleges were practically on their feet, eyes sparkling with how absolutely wonderful it was for a living legend to pop in before morning break.
The question was of course, why was Mr Universe taking time off from saving the Galaxy to come and see the admin staff?
Was he in fact just walking into the room so he could get a glass of water from the sustenance terminal on the other side? Or did he perhaps like to play this kind of game all over the city? Occasionally pop into random offices, workstations, schools even, flash that dashing smile of his and wait for his adoring fans to cheer?
Jane blinked heavily as she still remained seated, even though most of her colleagues were already standing. It was a funny thing, but usually she wasn't all that cynical. Plain, yes, boring, yes, but cynical, no. She was the kind of person that usually liked to see the better side of somebody, that didn't like to say something unless what she had to say was positive. And that was another thing some of her colleagues, especially Mandy, liked to point out: Jane was too innocent, always liked to see the good side of the situation, always liked to hope for the best. She wasn't interesting in any way and didn't seem to have any depth to her opinions or beliefs because she hadn't been anywhere or done anything or been challenged by anyone or any event.
But then there was Lucas Stone. And for some reason, he was different. For some reason he got on Jane's nerves. And perhaps it was the fact that whenever anybody concluded that she was just so boring and so plain they would always hold her up against Lucas Stone. Just look at Lucas Stone, they would say, how interesting, how handsome, how accomplished. He saves the world on Tuesday, teaches and the next generation on Wednesday, and woos the very daughter of Galactic Senator Cooper on Thursday. A busy boy, a perfect boy, an interesting boy.
And then of course there was Jane. Who went home every single night and stared up at exactly the same night sky and dreamed about adventures but never of course had one. So even though it went against most of Jane's nice, easy going, fairly innocent personality, she had a bone to pick with Lucas Stone. She hadn't ever actually met the guy, well not properly anyway. She had actually been working here the entire time he had gone from being a rookie to being a full-time Mr Universe. Even though he would not remember it, she had run into him on his very first day at the Galactic Force. It had been her first day as well, but unlike him she had not gone on to rule the universe. And how had they met? Had she done something clumsy, something stupid and incredibly embarrassing in front of him? Had she fallen from one of the transports only to be caught by him at just the perfect time? Had she tripped over one of the cleaning robots only to smack right into his chest? Had she slipped in the mud? Oh no, because she was plain Jane. And those were the types of amusing, if not embarrassing, things that happened to interesting people. No, he had asked for directions and she had apologized, because it had, after all, only been her first day. And that had been it.
They had crossed each other several times in the corridors over the years, each time Lucas would have a different colored stripe down the arms of his armor or uniform, indicating that once again he had been promoted or had acquired some new and incredible skill. A couple of times he had asked what the time was, perhaps where the nearest sustenance receptacle was, and once he had even asked her where the bathroom was. And that was the total sum of their interactions. Jane had absolutely no question in her mind that Lucas did not even know who she was. And Jane didn't mind one bit. After all, she was sick of being compared to the very best and the very most interesting the Galaxy had to offer.
'Don't do anything embarrassing,' Mandy hissed from her side.
Even though her colleague's tone was curt, Jane didn't pay any attention to it; when it came to rationalizing and making excuses for other people's behavior, she was well trained and well skilled. Well, unless it came to Lucas Stone, of course.
Jane just nodded her head and waited for whatever would happen to hurry up and happen so she could get back to trying not to daydream at her desk.
The general manager of the division suddenly clapped his hands together, his green scaly flesh glinting under the light. 'I have some very exciting news,' he smiled broadly, and even though he was from a race who did not usually show emotion through facial movements – preferring instead to communicate solely with their hands – apparently even he had to crack a grin around Lucas Stone. 'Now, Lucas here needs no introduction.'
There was a smattering of almost overjoyed laughter in the room, a smattering that Jane did not join in with.
'I have some exciting news,' the general manager continued, his green skin now turning purple as an indication of just how excited he was about it, 'but perhaps I should now step aside and let the man of the moment fill you in.'
The general manager actually bowed out as he gestured for Lucas to step forward.
Lucas stood there for a moment, smiling heartily, teeth practically glittering as they always did. He wasn't in his armor today, he was in his dress uniform, and as with everything he wore, he looked damn near perfect in it. Or at least some version of perfect, a version of perfect that Jane did not quite share. Because even though she did go home every single night and dream up little romantic fantasies for herself, the likes of Lucas Stone were never included. Oh no, her romantic leads weren't anything like Lucas; they were kind, bashful, capable but dignified about it. They had flaws, fears, inabilities, and they were open about them, even had a sense of humor about them. In other words, they were miles and miles, parsecs and parsecs, light years and light years away from Mr Universe, Lucas Stone.
Still smiling, Jane could see that Lucas took a big breath, his chest puffing out a bit in the white, black, and gold of his dress uniform. 'I am sure you have all heard about the upcoming mission to the outer rim,' he kept on smiling, but now there was a positive glint in his eye, a glint that seemed to suggest that there was nothing more important in the world to him, 'I do not need to tell you that a Galactic ship has not traversed through Hell's Gate for almost 100 years. The scientific and technological discoveries to be made could redefine our generation, and pave the way for a brighter future for all of the races of the Galaxy.'
All of the people in the room gave a smattering of applause, even a mumbling of approval. Oh yes, they had all heard about the mission, and oh yes, they all knew that nobody had passed through Hell's Gate in over 100 years.
'If we pull this mission off, we will be the first people to cross beyond the Pillars and to come back again. The scientific data we can accumulate by studying the unique singularities through Hell's Gate could advance our current understandings of quantum field theory by decades...'
Jane started to tune out. She could still hear Lucas speaking of course, but she started to pay less and less attention to it. Instead she let her gaze wander to her left, until it settled on the view outside of the huge flex windows. She could see the other buildings of the Galactic Force, even see the rest of the city stretching out behind, and especially the sky above. And Jane ever did so like the sky; it always seemed so big and inviting, and quite frankly non-judgmental. The sky didn't seem to care that Jane was boring, and the sky had not once called her plain.
But as always happened when Jane started to get distracted by the view, her mind started to wander. She always liked to plan her little night-time fantasies in advance, and right now she was starting to imagine a dignified, capable, handsome, accomplished galactic adventurer, someone a little bit like Lucas Stone but without the personality. Someone with charms, flaws, faults, and a fantastic sense of humor. Someone who didn't command the limelight, but shunned it instead. Someone who wouldn't ever consider her plain, because they wouldn't ever consider anyone plain. They would look beyond the appearances and see the beautiful dynamism and creativity inherent in everything. Perhaps he would have sandy blond hair, perhaps he would be half human and half Elurian – his eyes a glowing electric blue.
But it was while Jane was trying to cook up her little dream, twisting her long mousy brown hair around her fingers as she did, that she missed something very important.
It was also when Mandy whipped out with her tail and poked her hard in the back.
Jane gave a splutter, falling forward right into the holographic display of her terminal.
Of course everyone turned to look at her, because the sound she'd made was very loud, awkward, and possibly a very disrespectful noise considering present company.
But rather than stop and bring her up in front of the class for making rude and disruptive noises, Lucas didn't even seem to notice. He might have glanced her way once, but that was it.
And in fact, he seemed to be finished, and soon everyone was back up on their feet and clapping.
Jane had absolutely no idea what they were clapping about, as she had fazed out through the entire thing only to wake up from a tail poke to the back.
But soon enough he had given his bow and had left the room, finally leaving them in peace. Well, not peace apparently, because the second he left, was the second the entire room erupted in happy chatter.
Mandy turned immediately to Tarta, her face absolutely lit up with interest. 'By the Lord of Yarla, can you believe it?'
Tarta nodded his head simply. 'I have never been wrong about that man; he has, as the humans say, a head on his shoulders.'
Jane wanted to point out she had a head on her shoulders too, and that having such a feature didn't mean a great deal, but instead she just turned back to her holo terminal in order to get on with her work. But even though she really didn't want to know what Lucas had said, she couldn't help herself from overhearing Mandy and Tarta and even the rest of the room. You would think that Lucas had come in and offered everybody signed autographs or perhaps a personal dinner with him that very night. Oh no, it wasn't even nearly that grand however. He hadn't offered anybody a role in the team for his up-coming mission, but he had, apparently, said that their division would be involved in the administrative side of putting the team together from the very best and most promising recruits and seniors at the Galactic Force. By the way everybody else was talking, you would have thought they had all won the Galactic lottery, and not extra work that they wouldn't get paid any more for. Ordinarily Jane didn't think too much about money, and she certainly did not gripe about how much she was paid, but for some reason the very thought that Lucas Stone was trying to give them more work made her want a small moon in return, and maybe even a large planet too.
It was unusual for her to be in a bad mood because, as Mandy would point out, she was far too boring to have an emotional reaction as interesting as anger. But Jane wasn't exactly pleased at the moment. So she just sat there, pursed her lips, and got on with her work. The administrative unit she worked for was responsible for the data collection, consolidation, and maintenance of all results, enrollments, and related tasks that went on throughout the Galactic Force. It was a fairly simple job, and didn't require a great deal of skill or training, but Jane liked to think she was at least okay at it, if that was something worthy to admit on the very same day that the great Lucas Stone had popped his head in the door.
The best and the brightest, apparently that was what Lucas wanted on his trip. And fair enough, everyone always wanted the best and brightest, nobody ever wanted the slightly okay and the moderately interesting. Well, nobody but Jane that was.
Jane worked till late that night, as with the hullabaloo that had happened over Stone's visit during the day, quite a few people had been far too busy talking about his heroic trip to the rim to actually process their data. So Jane, being Jane, had offered to stay late and do what was needed. Plus, she always liked working late anyway; if she had her preference, she would probably work alone. And it wasn't because she shunned human company, or alien company, for that matter. Jane wasn't antisocial; she was just awkward, quiet, and apparently far too innocent. Whenever she espoused her 'sugar-coated, candy-style views of the universe', Mandy or others always told her that she simply didn't know what she was talking about or that she was simply wrong about the world. And that was another reason why Jane never bothered to go out. Whenever people started to talk about the current state of the Galactic Senate, as they always did, she would always put forth her rather happy, optimistic views, only to be shot down and told she was thinking like a child. And there had been only so many times she had been willing to put up with that.
She didn't hate her co-workers, far from it; Jane valued and had high esteem for each and every one of them. She just knew she was different. Very different. Different in a way that everybody else would assume made her plain, but she knew it went beyond that. She knew there was more to her, and that if people bothered, if they tried, if they suspended their views and judgments for just long enough to get to know her, they would see what was on the inside. All those adventures, all that romance, all that life.
Jane knew she did not fit in, and she also knew that she had never fit in. Even as a child, she had been different. After all, she wasn't a human and she had grown up on Earth. Not that you could tell without a thorough physical examination, of course, but Jane was technically an alien. But she wasn't an interesting alien: she wasn't like an Elurian mercenary or a Hirean sprinter, or anything like that. Jane's alien DNA was, fittingly, quite plain. She had the full appearance of a human, but she wasn't quite as strong, quite as quick, and perhaps even quite as attractive. As one of her colleagues had once joked, Jane managed to do humans more boring than the humans did. She didn't have any pincers, any tails, no third eye, no incredible strength and agility, nothing to set out from the crowd. Which could pretty much sum up Jane perfectly: there was not a thing in her history, her schooling, ability, or her appearance that could possibly set her apart from the crowd. In fact, all of her features did exactly the opposite: they seemed to embed her so far into the realm of normalcy that she became just too normal, so normal, in fact, that there was zero point in talking to her or looking at her at all.
Plain Jane was just too plain.
But plain Jane had work to do.
She planed on working for at least the next two hours, and then taking the late transport back home. She would have all tomorrow morning off considering her overtime, so she could spend most of the night sitting up on the window ledge staring at the stars. One particular peculiarity about Jane's physiology, and really possibly the most interesting thing to be said about her, was that she technically didn't sleep. And while to an ordinary person that would seem like an incredible feat, and pave the way for an enormous amount of productivity, it did not have that effect in Jane. After all, she spent the time when everyone else would be sleeping, simply staring at the sky and imagining instead.
And even though she did not really understand the process, she knew that her daydreams were regenerative in some fashion; while humans slept, Jane sat on window ledges and imagined. It was just another strange and quirky fact about Jane that she liked to think proved to herself at least that she was not boring, not at all.
It was when Jane had almost finished her work, and was finally getting ready to leave, that the building shook. It was very slight at first, and Jane could hardly pick up on it, but when the Central Intelligence – an interconnected computer system that ran throughout the entire Galactic Force – began to blare with a warning, Jane realized that something serious was up.
'Ci, what's going on?' she asked the computer. She always called it Ci for short – its full title being Centralized Intelligence Unit, of course, but Ci being far shorter and far cuter. And that was perhaps another thing that set Jane apart: even though Ci was just a computer, Jane liked to treat her as something more. Yes, she was technically just an artificial intelligence, just a system of computer banks and interconnecting panels; she did not have real intelligence, she did not have real emotions, and in fact, one could simply say 'she' wasn't real at all. But Jane liked to think she should treat everything – from a tree, to a human, to an alien, to a rock – exactly the same. With perfect dignity. Well, maybe everything except stones, Lucas Stones to be specific.
'Depressurization has occurred in containment chamber one,' Ci replied quickly, her synthesized voice belying no emotion.
But even though technically Ci did not show any outward feeling, Jane always liked to think that there was a certain warm efficiency about her.
'Thank you, Ci. Is it serious?' Jane asked quickly.
'Containment has been re-established. Correct personnel have been notified. There is no risk to life or property,' Ci said, voice maintaining a perfectly even tone.
'Thank you, Ci,' Jane said with a sigh. Which was a little silly really, because she shouldn't be sighing at the rather pleasant fact that the building and everybody in it was fine. But perhaps a fairly deep buried mutinous bit of her personality had wanted something a little bit more exciting, something a little bit more adventurous for a Monday night. But Jane buried that voice, said good night to Ci, and finally walked out of the office.
It was when Jane was walking across the campus to one of the transport hubs that the thing attacked her. She had no warning, she had nowhere to run, and she had no chance.