After passing through three more star systems, I was almost certain we were free of well, whichever of Lee’s people was watching the place.
I glanced over at Lee. “Do you know who it was?”
Lee shook his head. “I lost track of where everybody was long ago. That place was never part of the galactic main. It happened to be strategically useful to the Live faction at that time. I only ever came back because it was important to me—not because it was important.”
He frowned. “Whatever else may be true, we can be sure that they sensed something when Nick drew the sword even if they didn’t get the location. They think I’m out and about. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been watching there.”
Leaning back in his seat, he added, “Knowing that almost justifies the risk of going there. I’m going to have to sell what I do next though. My people will be watching. They just don’t know it yet.”
He looked up at the windshield and pointed, “Go that way for the jumpgate. K’tepolu is one jump from here. Once we use it, we’ll be logged into the system, but it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. A lot of traffic comes through here and there’s more than one unofficial jumpgate out on the fringes.”
I checked the sensors. He wasn’t wrong. Even though the system didn’t seem to have an inhabited planet, there were more than thirty ships in the system, all of them heading toward the jumpgate.
As I watched the screen, the colors changed, or if they didn’t change, a golden glow surrounded the screen.
I looked around the cabin. The glow didn’t go away. If anything, I saw more colors. Looking out the window was easiest. A little added color didn’t make much difference against the darkness outside.
The screens on the dashboard made me feel queasy—conflicting colors fought to be seen and the words were overlaid with additional words.
I hoped I wouldn’t throw up.
“Looks like you’re in final stage of implantation.” Lee tapped on the dashboard. “I’ll fly. I’m told it’s disorienting.”
Behind me, someone (probably Jaclyn) tried to say something. She sounded like she was speaking in tongues.
I don’t know how long it went on. I felt half out of my body the whole time and couldn’t think straight, much less read well enough to know how much time passed. However long it was, it did stop. Rainbows of color shrunk into straight black lines, golden light disappeared, and my nausea disappeared, leaving me sitting in front of the dashboard in a ship in space.
Everything was normal, but I knew better. In the same way I could feel my legs, I could feel the implant. I knew its main functions: communication (including language translation and computer user-interface), and cultural knowledge and history with a focus on the Xiniti. I investigated the languages, learning that it knew thousands, all the major galactic languages, many minor languages, and a smattering of languages from other galaxies.
Remembering that the Xiniti we’d met told us that our implants would have the mission details, I requested them. It responded, “Information will become available as needed.”
In short, they’d feed us information at the Xiniti’s pace.
From behind me, Cassie said, “Everyone’s finally coming around.”
I turned around. Jaclyn was blinking her eyes and shaking her head. Marcus was stretching his arms. Cassie, however, sat up straight in her chair, watching all of us.
“What happened?” I asked. “Was it easier for you?”
“Get this,” Cassie said. “You know how I was worried it wouldn’t work with the Abominator stuff in my head?”
“Yeah?” I said.
She laughed. “It actually made it easier. The implant has to configure itself to communicate with us? The Abominator stuff already does that, so it plugged into there and I was done.”
It occurred to me to check what the Xiniti implant allowed me to communicate with and then I knew the answer. All of us were included, but that wasn’t all. I sensed the ship’s computer, “HAL”—Marcus’ nickname for the ship’s AI (an alien AI that specialized in fleet strategy and tactics), and a presence that was near Cassie and labeled “indirectly accessible.”
Knowing what that had to be, I concentrated on the ship’s computer.
The results were far better than I expected. At first, I realized that I no longer needed to look at the dashboard to know details about the ship’s speed, the amount of fuel in the tank, the fusion plant’s current power output… I knew the answer, but more than that, I could adjust anything with my head that I normally would have adjusted with my hands—including the weapons and shields.
I could even adjust my perceptions so that it felt like I was flying through space, leaving me barely aware of my body in the chair.
Were all the pilots using implants, I wondered? They’d be reacting almost at the speed of their thoughts. Had Grandpa had one?
I let myself become aware of my body again, but continued operating the ship without using my hands. “Wow,” I said aloud. “Does everybody have these?”
Lee shook his head. “People from richer worlds? Yes. People in the military? Yes. Most people have less invasive modifications or none at all.”
Reflected in the windshield, Marcus shook his head. “Have you opened the files on Xiniti customs? They’ve got more than fifty major clans and they’re all different from each other. This is crazy.”
“It is,” Jaclyn said. “I hope the implant suggests the appropriate responses because finding them… There’s a lot to look through.”
I would have responded except that the implant flashed a red arrow at me. It pointed toward three gray rings floating in space. Earth’s gateway had rings too, but these were much larger and understandably. The ship’s sensors now showed more than forty ships nearing the rings.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Cassie said, “but I’m going to let my gun communicate through my implant. It knows a lot about Abominator stuff. Plus, it’s a little wearing to be only one who can hear it sometimes.”
It became audible midway through a rant it was aiming at um… the universe?
“—AND NOW, MONGRELS, I RETURN FROM EXILE! FEAR ME OR BURN!”
Jaclyn’s jaw dropped and we all turned to stare at Cassie.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Welcome to my life.”