“Monopoly?” Jaclyn raised an eyebrow and looked at me. “Seriously? Why?”
I shrugged. “To kill time. We’ve got a week in jumpspace and as you can see,” I pointed toward the infinite gray outside the window, “it’ s not very interesting. Plus, I was joking a little too. We probably ought to come up with ideas for how we’ll handle it if we have to defend the colony. There’s no question they’re being followed.”
Jaclyn shook her head. “Skip the Monopoly then. Let’s get prepared.”
Cassie laughed. “That figures.”
Katuk said, “On smaller Xiniti ships, we often do simulated drills of attack and defense patterns. On the larger ships, of course, we have facilities for physical training.”
Jaclyn frowned. Tikki unstrapped herself from her seat and looked around the group. “So what’s Monopoly? Is it a game?”
“It’s a game,” Marcus said, “a really, really long game. It’s fun, but it’s not short.”
Tikki nodded along as he spoke. “What are you trying to do?”
“Get rich,” I said. “If I remember it right, it became popular when a lot of people were poor on our world. So it was a fantasy, I guess. What you try to do is buy property, charge people rent, and become the wealthiest player.”
Watching me with his big, black eyes, Katuk said, “That sounds like a dangerous game. You’re taking money from those you play with and work to acquire more than the others. It seems as though it would breed jealousy and division. Is that the custom on your world?”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. I don’t know the history of other worlds well enough to say that we’ve got more of that than other places.”
Hal, the ship’s AI, spoke before anyone else, his “voice” sounding over our implants or in Tikki’s case, her bracelet.
[If I might interject, I’ve prepared a number of simulations that will put your group through common offensive and defensive situations. You’ll be able to experience and therefore assess group members’ personalities and training in combat.]
“If everyone’s okay with it,” I said.
Everyone was—except for Tikki, and she wasn’t against it as much as unsure. “I’d like to, but I don’t have an implant—just this bracelet—and I’m not part of their team, so I don’t know where I’d fit in?”
She looked down at the bracelet.
Hal responded, [The bracelet will be adequate for this function. As for your presence, their purpose here is to protect civilians. Having a civilian who isn’t a simulation will be useful. Did you participate in the Human Ascendancy’s militia units?]
Her mouth twisted. “It’s required. I wouldn’t have been able to attend school without it.”
[Then I’ll arm you with standard infantry equipment in some scenarios.]
The week settled into a rhythm after the first day. We’d run through combat scenarios. Hal simulated combat on ships and between them, on planets, and in the atmosphere above them. Run through Xiniti implants, it felt like we were there. I could hear the rain, and even more impressive, feel and smell it.
I’d become awake later with my body feeling like I’d slept in a strange position. This was more or less true. And the AI wasn’t wrong. We did become familiar with how people fought. I didn’t have much to learn about Jaclyn, Marcus, or Cassie because I’d been training with them for years. Katuk though? I learned through fighting with him that the Xiniti we’d killed wasn’t an exception. Katuk moved almost as quickly as Jaclyn in his armor even if he wasn’t as strong. He made up for the relative slowness with his weapons—laser, plasma gun, and a sharp blade.
Especially at the beginning, Katuk would forget that he wasn’t part of a squad with the exact same abilities. To be fair, we were close. Jaclyn had the speed, Cassie had the weapons, and I had both except that I had to be flying but didn’t have his reflexes.
Marcus didn’t have any of that—which helped. Katuk remembered the differences because Marcus’ shapeshifting didn’t fit the Xiniti paradigm at all.
Tikki, meanwhile, reveled in all roles Hal used her, appearing as armed support, a kidnapped civilian, powered and unpowered enemies, and even as a spy. Virtual reality let Hal slip her into spots where we didn’t expect to find her, playing them to the hilt—even the ones where she had to fight us. It may have been the game, but I felt like she’d been trained in hand to hand combat.
So training took up the days. At night we separated to the degree that we could. I read, watched a movie, or messed with Rocket suit improvement ideas. Marcus drew, Cassie talked with people, and Jaclyn delved deeply into her implant’s culture and history archives, sometimes asking Katuk and Tikki questions.
On the last night of jump, Tikki said, “We should play it.”
“What?” I asked.
“Monopoly!” Tikki looked around room, grinning. “I’m sure I’ll never have the chance to play it again. So how about just once?”
“No,” Jaclyn shook her head. “I’ve never liked that game.”
“I’ll play,” Cassie said. “It’s still better than looking out the windows.”
“It’s not that bad,” Marcus told Jaclyn. “What have you got to lose?”
Narrowing her eyes, Jaclyn said, “I don’t know. More time to that game?”
“If it will make things easier,” Katuk said, “I’ll play.”
I was about to say the same when my implant informed me that we were about to drop out of jump. I hadn’t been the only one notified either because everyone strapped in. Watching as the ship counted down, I connected with the ship, feeling its sensors, weapons, and shields.
We dropped out of jump, the gray fading into the blackness of normal space. Even as we did, I knew that something was wrong. The sensors showed me hundreds, possibly thousands of small dots. I turned on the shields, turned the ship, and radioed the colonists’ ship, telling them to do the same.
The space between us and the planet had been thoroughly mined.