With a minimum of fuss, the ROU Negotiation Is Overrated rendezvoused with the LSV Road Less Traveled. The larger vessel was keeping itself a discreet distance from the Delphic Chaosarium, to avoid any risk of interfering with the finely-tuned perambulations of its constituent bodies, while still keeping the whole edifice entirely within range of even its most subtle of scanners, sensors and effectors.
The Road Less Traveled was de-facto the Culture's coordinating presence in the volume. Although a Limited Service Vehicle was considered "small" in current Culture nomenclature, there had been a very substantial human and drone population on board, and more than a typical number of genuine aliens - guests of the Culture from a dozen civilizations across the greater galaxy - all intent on studying the enigmatic artifact in as much detail as could be managed. The fact that Contact had chosen to dedicate an entire LSV - with its attendant collection of smaller ships and hundreds of thousands of passengers - entirely to the study of the Chaosarium was a measure of the importance being attached to the mission.
Most of the other Culture vessels had already departed, retreating from the war zone at their best speed, and taking a very large fraction of the LSV's personnel with them. A handful of GCUs and other smaller general-purpose Contact craft were all now rapidly reconfiguring themselves - or being rebuilt by the LSV - to a more military form. The Road Less Travelled was also pushing its own - very substantial - manufacturing capacity to its operational limits, turning out semi-independent weapons platforms and slaved munitions pods by the hundreds, and flinging them out almost willy-nilly, scattered in a widely-dispersed protective cloud around the Chaosarium.
Some unspecified number of other GCUs were manoeuvring at greater distances - doing what they could to move stealthily, avoiding easy detection and generally not making themselves apparent - in an effort to provide a degree of early warning of the approach of any Castophrenic Widowhood assets. Normally, there would be a diverse clutch of ships from a handful of other civs parked in the general volume; having been informed by the Culture that the Chaosarium was the focus of one of the Castophrenic Widowhood's demands, all had lost no time in making themselves scarce, taking their biological - or equivalent - life-forms with them, and were by now all long-gone from the region.
In short, the Road Less Travelled was doing everything in its power to put up a defence should the Castophrenic Widowhood - or anyone else - turn up and want to press the matter by force of arms. Privately, the LSV's Mind thought that the odds were distinctly poor - although every day, every hour meant a marked improvement in the state of its military readiness. The ROU Negotiation Is Overrated was the first all-out Culture warship to arrive in the volume and represented, to the larger ship's great relief, a very significant improvement in local martial capability.
"The Negotiation Is Overrated didn't stick around for very long," Foklane Valbada said wryly, glancing over her shoulder.
The three companions had just disembarked and had walked barely five metres down the corridor to the arrival lounge when a mirror-finish lock had rotated shut behind them and the view of the ROU's quarters was replaced by their own distorted reflections.
"Huh. If it was really in a hurry we'd have been Displaced as soon as we were in range," Formali-Kai said sourly, "No doubt it's off to strut its stuff somewhere in the vicinity."
"Well, let's be thankful for small mercies," Histoker responded, "In any case, we're here now. And we've got a job to do."
"So I suppose we’d better get started," Valbada said, "As best we can, under the circumstances."
"Ah, here's the welcome committee," the drone interjected, just as the three companions entered the lounge.
A bulky and outwardly mechanical robot slouched with machine-like immobility near the centre of the room, looking jarringly out of place. In stark contrast to the Culture-standard welcome of soft furnishings and subdued lighting, effortless automation and discretely intelligent machines, the LSV had chosen to form its Avatars like some nightmare out of some primitive's imagined future: all exposed pistons with gleaming metal linkages, whirring gears, and visible bolts, rivets and screws holding the whole thing together.
"Welcome to the Road Less Travelled," the robot droned in authentically mechanical tones, its clunky mechanical jaw moving only approximately in synchronization with its voice. The thing moved suddenly, drawing itself up to its full height and regarding them all with its glowing red eyes.
Both Valbada and Histoker took an involuntary step back. Neither of them could entirely prevent the automatic rush of alert drugs in their bloodstream and the sudden activation of several gene-fixed emergency reactions. Roosh Formali-Kai had anticipated this response from its human companions, but the LSV had seemed determined to spring a surprise on them; the drone just glowered grey in displeasure and frustration.
"Oh, don't mind the Road," said a much more human voice, "I think the old thing wants to make some point about age and experience beating youth and enthusiasm, but I don't pay much attention these days."
A slender young-looking man stepped from behind the hulking bulk of the robot and held out his hand in welcome.
"Hi, I'm Finark Noibalt," he said cheerfully, "Despite my protestations, I've been elected the human face of the Road Less Travelled. As you can see, the machine's face really is a bit grim, but it's all a bit of a pose really."
Noibalt rattled on convivially as he guided the three companions to the quarters which had been suggested for their use. As they walked, Valbada and Histoker took a little time to return their physiology to their normal states. The robot trailed them, making authentic-sounding clanking and hissing noises but not attempting to join in the conversation.
Apparently, Noibalt explained, it was all some kind of convoluted joke: the LSV formed its Avatars like antiquated mechanical men in a not-so-subtle reference to the perception that old ships like the Road Less Travelled were outmoded by more recent classes of GSV. Which might be true, but some many ancient LSVs like the Road seemed completely resistant to the idea that they should rebuild themselves to a more modern form - even though this was entirely within their capability - and preferred to remain close to their original specification.
Despite the partial evacuation, there were still plenty of people on the LSV, it seemed. Many were volunteers, determined to directly aid the Culture's war effort, even it was just in the role of a moral shield; Noibalt seemed very proud of his role in this context. Of the remainder, some - human and drone - were full-on Special Circumstances agents; essentially military assets, of a minor kind, since it was not at all clear under what circumstances even a fighting machine as capable as an SC drone would genuinely be useful. Without actually stating it, the three newcomers allowed Noibalt to assume that they had arrived to reinforce this contingent. The very few others were unaware of the current state of war, existing in various blissed-out states, mostly drug-gland-induced, or engaged in the most immersive of virtual reality experiences.
In any case, all of the human mind-states had been thoroughly backed up - the LSV had transmitted what in an earlier era would have been called their souls to distant GSVs and Orbitals for safe-keeping, with a request that they be copied onwards, with the expectation that, in the event of total destruction of the ship, they could be grown new bodies and their minds re-implanted - revented, to use the technical term - with just a little loss of life experience.
Having delivered the three to their quarters, Noibalt left, having extracted a firm promise to attend a "little welcome gathering" later in the day. The hulking robot slumped outside their door, eyes still glowing a dull red and emitting a very small wisp of steam. Histoker looked at it quizzically; the drone's aura fields glowered grey; Valbada just shook her head and turned to step into the room. The two humans had just turned their backs when there was a soft click followed by a grinding squeak, as if some unoiled hinge had been prised open after many decades. They turned to see that a door in the giant's chest opening, from which emerged a softly-glowing orb with a pearlescent sheen. The robot’s eyes flickered and dimmed and the wisp of steam just faded away.
"Hello again," a much smoother rendition of the voice of the Road Less Travelled said, "Sorry about all that. Keeping up appearance, you know."
"Is it really necessary?" Formali-Kai said sharply.
The orb made a sound like a laugh.
"Not really, but it amuses me."
Valbada and Histoker shared a wry grin.
"Can we assume you've been briefed by the Negotiation Is Overrated?" Valbada asked.
"Of course," the voice of the Road Less Travelled replied, suddenly sounding a lot more serious.
"Good," she went on, "Because I've got some questions, and I suspect my companions have, too."
"First," she said slowly, "Why didn't the Castophrenic Widowhood just surprise-attack us at the Chaosarium? Rather than issue an ultimatum then a formal declaration of war? I mean, they've got lots of warships; surely they could have overwhelmed you and the other ships hereabouts?"
"Good question," the ships said immediately, "And any answer I might give would be pure speculation. But my best guess is that it is vitally important to the CW that the Chaosarium is not damaged or even perturbed in any way and that, in the undoubted panic and confusion of an attack, the risk of a stray shot or attempted escape affecting the spheres would be too high."
Valbada nodded slowly.
"That makes sense," she said thoughtfully, "And since we've now been warned that the Widowhood want control of the Chaosarium and, presumably, we've told them we've rejected their ultimatum..."
"We have," the ship interjected.
"...So all parties will be taking extra special care to avoid even the slightest interaction with the artifact, even in an all-out battle?"
"Correct," the voice of the Road Less Travelled confirmed, "And, to make this task a little easier, I have now turned over control of a significant fraction of my semi-slaved defensive capability to the Negotiation Is Overrated. Its mindset is, naturally, better equipped for battle than mine."
"And why our task to identify whatever agent is plotting to interfere is so very important," Histoker added.
"But, surely a LSV Mind such as yourself would be capable of spotting any kind of attempt at interference well before it happened," he went on.
"For most humans, yes, certainly," the ship answered, "And all the aliens, Involved and Aspirant, who might have attempted something sneaky have left, thankfully. An SC drone, or even an enhanced human with SC training and implants, might be able to slip something under the radar. If they were very careful; just holding an idea, a plan in their own mind. Never talking about it. Complete silence, until - bam!"