CHAPTER ONE

The plastic target dummy gave a sudden violent lurch as a seven-millimeter bullet punctured near the bull's-eye mark on its chest. Around one hundred yards downrange, Major Steven O'Niel stood up from his crouched firing position and examined his handiwork with a satisfied grin. "Three more points." He said to the woman in the adjacent firing box, "Let's see if you can best that, Aili."

Aili Jordan gave a slightly amused smile and rolled her brown eyes at Steven's out-of-character attitude. Ever since Steven and his friend, Jamie Banes, had taken her back with them to their space station Serenity from the Wild West era a few weeks ago, Aili had had her skills tested to the limit as part of the evaluation course Steven's superiors had assigned to her. If she was going to have any hope of joining Steven's frontline team, she would have to prove herself worthy of the position. It was challenging, Aili had to admit, but that didn't put a damper on her ability to have fun.

"Seriously, Steven, your persistence surprises even me." Aili responded, carefully sighting down the scope of a standard-issue BT-12 Sniper Rifle.

"Same here." Jamie commented from her lounge chair seat behind the two shooters, "This is the tenth time you've challenged her to his shooting contest this week. How long are you planning to keep this losing streak up?"

Steven glanced back at his friend, the hardened soldier features on his face set in a determined mood, "Until I win, Jamie, until I win."

Jamie laughed, her long blonde hair catching the light, "Well, that'll be a long time coming. Precision was never really your thing."

As if to add a punctuation mark to Jamie's statement, an icy-blue plasma projectile shot out from the muzzle of Aili's rifle and accelerated towards the other end of the range. Moments later, the bolt struck the targeting dummy, impaling it through the dead center of its chest. Aili stood up and gave Steven a smug smile, waiting patiently for his reaction.

Steven looked dumbfounded as he continued to stare at the smoldering remains of Aili's target dummy. "Blast it!" he exclaimed, "All those extra hours of practice gone to waste in a single shot!"

"Game over." Jamie declared, "Aili wins…again. Final score: Steven with six points, Aili with ten."

Aili nodded approvingly, "Nice. You almost beat me that time."

"Hardly." Steven replied, activating the safety lock on his rifle and placing it in the nearby weapons locker.

"Whew!" Jamie said after Aili had returned the other rifle to the locker, "All that excitement's made me hungry for some good old military mess hall food. Wanna grab some lunch?"

Steven checked his watch, "I've still got a half-hour of break time, so sure."

"Fine by me." Aili agreed.

"Great!" Jamie stated with a grin, "Steven's buying."

Steven's mouth dropped open in fake astonishment, "Hey! Wait a second!" he protested, "Last I checked, mess hall food didn't cost anything."

"It does now, buddy boy." Jamie replied as she headed for the door, "Don't worry, we might pay you back later."

Aili began to laugh and Steven gave an exasperated sigh. "What did I do to deserve this?" he asked himself as they strode out of the firing range and into the bustling corridors of the space station.

They were just over halfway to the mess hall when the deck lights suddenly began to strobe red and a siren wailed. "A Time Crystal has been located. Repeat: A Time Crystal has been located." A male voice boomed over the intercom, "Alpha Team: report to the command deck immediately."

"That's us." Steven said, "Let's go."

Both he and Jamie raced down the corridor towards the turbolifts. Aili followed a few moments later. Even though she wasn't officially part of Alpha Team, she had a feeling that that problem wouldn't be an issue right now.