Jane sat at her desk, staring down at the console in front of her. Blue and green holographic images moved around above the console display panel. She stared at them glumly, her head propped on one hand. She’d been staring at the same damn images for the past hour, and now her eyes were losing focus.
Around Jane, her co-workers chatted, laughed, and socialized. Mandy – a beautiful blue-skinned Hoya who sat alongside Jane – kept chortling as she talked loudly about everything other than work.
“You should have seen what he said to those new recruits.” She laughed, her lips spreading wide as her large eyes sparkled.
“Well, I suppose the rookies weren’t expecting a lesson from a professional,” noted Tarta. He came from an insect-like race, and he spread his pincers as he chuckled wildly.
Jane knew who they were talking about because there was only one person they ever talked about: Lucas Stone. The shining star of the Security Division of the Galactic Force. When he’d been a student, he’d thwarted an attack on the Galactic Union Senate. That same rookie had once single-handedly saved an entire battle cruiser by heroically plugging an engine leak with his own armor. He was also the man who’d practically rewritten the book on security procedures throughout the Galactic Force. Most importantly, he was the guy everybody knew would be picked to lead the new expedition to the outer rim. It felt like when it came to the Galactic Force, he was the only one anybody ever talked about or acknowledged. The legendary Lucas Stone.
As for Jane, she was Lucas’ polar opposite, a plain, boring woman who did nothing but work. She was also getting bored; the strain of focusing so hard was giving her a headache.
“I heard from one of the med students that they’re just going to give the new expedition to him. 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 she gesticulated with it.
Tarta nodded soberly. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. Lucas is the best we’ve got. He’ll know how to make that mission a success.”
Jane fought the urge to close her eyes. Everything was so boring. People always accused her of being boring. Fair enough, she hadn’t gone out last night to see Lucas Stone give an impromptu lesson to a couple of first-year security students on how to save the Galaxy. She’d stayed at home. Yet while she had, her mind hadn’t. Jane had an imagination, see. And she used it to stop up the gaps in an otherwise dreary existence.
Last night, Jane had traveled the Galaxy, in her dreams, at least. Now she was here again – back at work. While she was fighting it, her mind was wandering. She’d heard about the dreams that humans had. She’d even learned about something called day-dreaming. Well, Jane was a day-dreamer. A serious, serious day-dreamer. It was no doubt a quirk of her peculiar alien DNA.
She tried to open her eyes but found herself closing them languidly.
She could feel her cheek bunching against her hand, her mouth drooping open as her head nodded forward. Her muscles relaxed as her body succumbed to the boredom and transported her to dreamland….
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, the same tail that had poked Jane in the first place. “We’ve got company.”
Jane blinked as she looked up at the door on the other side of the room. It was still hard to focus, but….
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’d wandered off into a daydream, after all. All her colleagues were on their feet, eyes sparkling. How wonderful it was for a living legend to pop in before morning break to parley with them.
But why exactly was Mr. Universe taking time off from saving the Galaxy to come see the admin staff?
Was he just walking into the room so he could get a glass of water from the sustenance terminal on the other side? Or did he like to play this kind of game all over the city? Occasionally popping into random offices, workstations, schools even, flashing that amazing smile of his, then waiting for his adoring fans to cheer?
Jane blinked but remained seated, even though most of her colleagues had been standing from the moment he appeared in the doorway. It was a peculiar thing, but usually she wasn’t all that cynical. She was the kind of person who preferred to see the better side of somebody and who didn’t like to say anything unless it was positive.
Then there was Lucas Stone. When it came to Jane, he was different – he got on her nerves. Perhaps it was the fact that whenever anybody concluded she was boring, they would always contrast her with Lucas. Look at Lucas Stone, they would say, how interesting, how handsome, how accomplished. He saves the world on Tuesday, teaches the next generation on Wednesday, and woos the daughter of Senator Cooper on Thursday. A busy boy, a perfect boy, an immensely interesting boy. Then 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 while it went against most of her personality, she had a bone to pick with Mr. Stone. Though she’d only met him once and was sure he wouldn’t remember it. She’d run into him on his first day at the Galactic Force. It had been her first day as well, but unlike Lucas, she hadn’t gone on to rule the universe. How had they met, again? Had she done something clumsy, stupid, and incredibly embarrassing in front of him? Had she fallen from a transport only to be caught by Lucas at the last moment? Had she tripped over one of the cleaning robots only to smack right into his chest? Nope. Those were the types of amusing if not embarrassing things that happened to interesting people. He’d simply asked for directions.
They’d crossed paths several times in the corridors over the years, and each time Lucas would have different colored stripes down the arms of his armor or uniform, indicating that once again he’d been promoted. A couple of times, he’d asked what the time was or where the nearest sustenance receptacle was. On another occasion, he’d even asked her where the bathroom was. That was the total sum of their interactions. Jane had no question in her mind that Lucas didn’t even know who she was.
She was sick of being compared to the best the Galaxy had to offer.
“Don’t do anything embarrassing,” Mandy hissed from her side.
While her colleague’s tone was terse, Jane didn’t pay any attention to it; when it came to rationalizing or making excuses for other people’s behavior, she was well trained.
Jane waited silently for whatever would happen to hurry up so she could return to her task – trying not to daydream at her desk while avoiding work.
The general manager clapped his hands together, his green scaly flesh glinting under the light. “I have some exciting news.” He smiled broadly. Though he was from a race who didn’t usually show emotions through facial movements – preferring instead to communicate solely with their hands – even he had to crack a grin around Lucas Stone. “Now, Lucas here needs no introduction.”
There was a smattering of overjoyed laughter, a smattering Jane didn’t join in with.
“I have some incredible news,” the general manager continued, his green skin turning purple, indicating his uncontrollable excitement, “but perhaps I should now step aside to let the man of the moment fill you in.”
The general manager bowed out as he gestured for Lucas to step forward.
Lucas stood there, smiling heartily, his teeth practically glittering. He didn’t have his armor on today; he was in his dress uniform. 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 didn’t share. While she went home every single night and dreamed up romantic fantasies for herself, the likes of Lucas Stone were never included in them. Her romantic leads weren’t anything like Lucas; they were kind, bashful, capable but dignified men. They had flaws, fears, and limitations, with a great sense of humor added in. And most importantly, they always displayed modesty and humility.
Jane watched Lucas take a big breath, his chest puffing out against the white, black, and gold of his dress uniform. “I’m sure you have all heard of the upcoming mission to the outer rim.” He kept on smiling, but now there was a glint in his eyes, a glint that appeared to suggest there was nothing more important in the world to him. “I don’t need to tell you that no ship has traveled through Hell’s Gate for almost one hundred years. The scientific and technological discoveries to be made could redefine our generation and pave the way for a brighter future for all the races of the Galaxy.”
Everyone in the room gave a smattering of applause. Of course they’d all heard about the mission, and everyone knew that nobody had passed through Hell’s Gate in over one hundred 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 gather by studying the unique singularities throughout Hell’s Gate could advance our current understanding of quantum field theory by decades….”
Jane started to tune out. She could still hear Lucas speaking, but she began to pay less attention to him. 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, see the rest of the city stretching out behind and especially the sky above. She loved the sky; it was always so big and inviting and, quite frankly, non-judgmental. The sky didn’t care that Jane was boring. The sky hadn’t once called her plain.
As always happened when Jane started to get distracted by the view, her mind began to wander.
Mandy whipped out her tail, poking Jane hard in the back.
Jane spluttered, falling forward right into the holographic display of her terminal.
Everyone turned to stare, except for Lucas. Rather than stop to admonish her in front of her colleagues, Lucas didn’t appear to notice. He might have glanced her way once, but that was it.
In fact, he seemed to be finished. Everyone was now back on their feet, clapping.
He gave a bow, turning on his heel as he immediately left the room, leaving them in peace. Well, not peace, because the second he left was the second the entire room erupted in happy chatter.
Mandy turned to Tarta, her face alight with interest. “By the Lord of Yarla, can you believe it?”
Tarta nodded. “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 – having such a feature didn’t mean a great deal.
She turned back to her holo terminal to get on with her work. Though she didn’t want to know what Lucas had said, she couldn’t help overhearing everyone in the room. You would think Lucas had come in offering everybody signed autographs or a personal dinner with him that night. Nope, it was nowhere near that grand. He hadn’t offered anybody a role in the team of his upcoming mission, but he had said that their division would be involved in the administrative side of putting the team together from the best, most promising recruits and seniors at the Galactic Force. By the way everybody else was talking, you would’ve thought they’d all won the Galactic lottery – not been assigned extra work that they wouldn’t get paid anything more for. Ordinarily, Jane didn’t think too much about money. She didn’t gripe about how much she was paid, but the 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.
The administrative unit she worked for was responsible for the data collection, consolidation, and maintenance of low-security data from across the Galactic Force. It was a 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 same day the great Lucas Stone had popped his head through the door.
The best and the brightest, that was what Lucas wanted on his trip. 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 late that night. With the hullabaloo over Stone’s visit, everyone else had been far too busy talking about his heroic mission to bother getting any more work done. So Jane, being Jane, had offered to stay late and do what was needed. She liked working late, anyway. If she had her way, she would work alone.
Plus, she didn’t sleep, though she did suspect her nightly reveries were a necessary form of regeneration, as she got grumpy if she skipped them. But even during her day-dreams, her mind wouldn’t fully shut down. It was as if her brain never wanted to lose control of her body.
It was when Jane had almost finished her work and was getting ready to leave that the building shook. It was slight, and she hardly noticed it. But when the Central Intelligence – an interconnected computer system that ran throughout the entire Galactic Force – began to blare in warning, she realized something serious was up.
“Ci, what’s going on?” she asked the computer. She always called it Ci for short – its full title being the Centralized Intelligence Unit, but Ci being far shorter and far cuter.
“Depressurization has occurred in containment chamber one,” Ci replied, her synthesized voice expressing no emotion.
While technically Ci didn’t show any outward feeling, Jane liked to think there was a certain warm efficiency about her.
“Thank you, Ci. Is it serious?” Jane asked.
“Containment has been re-established. The correct personnel have been notified. There is no risk to life or property,” Ci advised, her voice maintaining an even tone.
“Thank you, Ci,” Jane said with a sigh. Which was a little silly, really, because she shouldn’t be sighing at the pleasant fact the building and everybody in it were fine. Perhaps a deeply buried, mutinous part of her personality had wanted something more exciting for a Monday night. Jane buried that voice, said goodnight to Ci, and walked out of the office.
It was when she 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.
The rest of A Plain Jane Book One is currently available from most ebook retailers.