Matlyen watched the cloud of ships dissipate and disperse for several minutes, not speaking, just munching absent-mindedly on the last of his pastry and finishing the by-now lukewarm mug of beverage.
Eventually he put down his cup and said, "Obby? Are you still there?"
Whether the words actually came from the mouth of the peculiarly grotesque physical Avatar that had welcomed him aboard only yesterday, or were synthesised more directly by the ship itself, Matlyen neither knew nor cared. In either case, he was effectively communicating with the Mind of the Obambulatist.
"Is that all of them? All of your ships sent out?" he asked.
"It's all of them I propose to dispatch for the time being," Obby's voice replied immediately, "I do have a rump of craft I've reserved as a contingency, and of course I am building new ships as quickly as my manufacturing capacity permits."
"Was the risk of all those Displacements worth it?"
Displacing was - especially at such speed - inherently and unfinessably dangerous; the risk of something going horribly, terminally wrong was only about one in eighty million for any single Displacement event, but that was still enough to put the average, fussily perfectionist ship Mind off using the process for anything alive except in the direst of emergencies. The Obambulatist must have carried out many thousands of Displacements in a minute or less, nudging the odds up well into the sort of likelihood-of-fuck-up range any sane Mind would normally recoil from in utter horror.
"Quite definitely," the voice of the ship replied without delay, "It was vitally important that the dispatch was a surprise to any hidden observers. If I had sent them out in ones and twos, at least some of them could have been picked off."
"Okay," Matlyen agreed, "So what happened to the Reformed Pacifist?"
"Hah," the ship said, sounding amused, "Surprisingly, the Reformed Pacifist elected to stay behind. It appears to have a private theory that the really interesting place to be in the near future is at the Delphic Chaosarium. It could be right, even though my dispositioning simulations throw up far too many possibilities to be sure. In addition, I am sure that you will be pleased to hear that I have had a request from the Extended Adolescence to be re-embodied in a modern GCU form."
"So, made into a proper grown-up ship, then?" Matlyen said.
"Indeed. The scheduled manufacturing will take some weeks," Obby's voice replied, "But in the meantime, the Mind of the Extended Adolescence is active in one of my sub-cores, so you can speak to it any time you like.
Actually, Matlyen was not sure he was pleased that the Extended Adolescence was becoming a GCU. He had rather enjoyed his nearly solitary existence aboard the old ship, and had found the company of the Extended Adolescence extremely gratifying. A full-size GCU would expect to have a crew of tens of people, which he would find oppressive, so he felt that he would not be travelling with the ship again.
"Matlyen, can I assume you have finished your breakfast?" the ship's voice went on. Of course, the Obambulatist would know for sure that this was the case; the question was just politeness.
"Yes, I'm done here," he replied, "Is there something you would like me to do?"
"There is. I wonder if you would care to join me and Dn Harunda-Lua for a briefing?"
So, not at all an instruction, Matlyen thought, but he could see no reason not to accept the invitation.
"Sure," he said, smiling wryly, "Just give me ten minutes to pull myself together."
When Matlyen arrived in the informal salon they had used before, Harunda-Lua and the Avatar were already there.
"Good morning," the drone said, sounding unexpectedly cheerful, its aura a friendly shade of green.
Matlyen responded in kind and threw himself into another one of the ridiculously comfortable couches which dotted the deceptively spacious lounge.
"Thank you for coming," Obby said, the lounge lights reflecting as highlights from its glossily back carapace, "There's a couple of items I feel it is essential you know about. I've prepared some detailed briefing packs which, with your permission, I would like to show you via your neural lace."
Matlyen had once seen a neural lace, before he had one fitted. It was a little bundle of what looked like thin, glisteningly blue threads, lying in a shallow bowl; a net, like something you would put on the end of a stick and go fishing for little fish in a stream. He had tried to pick it up; it was impossibly slinky and the material slipped through his fingers like oil; the holes in the net were just too small to put a finger-tip through. Eventually he had to tip the bowl up and pour the blue mesh into his palm.
Now, he had a very similar device in his head, the fine strands and even finer tendrils enveloping and caressing every part of his squishy biological brain. Any sensation he could experience, anything he could taste or feel or touch or see or hear, could be replicated by the lace; it was instant virtual reality right inside his skull.
"Sure," Matlyen said, "What do you want to show me?"
"I understand you have been studying the Delphic Chaosarium?" Obby said.
"Yes," he answered, frowning, "It was recommended to me. I actually found it fascinating."
"Indeed. So, a precis for you."
The ship flashed a series of still and moving images, written and verbal commentary, voice recordings, data tables, formulas, graphs and equations into Matlyen's head. If he had viewed this material normally, on a screen or as a hologram, it would have taken him a couple of hours to assimilate the information; via the lace, it took less than five minutes.
Matlyen blinked rapidly and shook his head as the lace's projection faded away.
"So, a Culture drone - a Special Circumstances drone, no less - was mentally hijacked and forced one of its own knife missiles to first strike one of the Chaosarium objects hard enough which might change its trajectory, and then attack said drone and its human companions so aggressively that they were forced to destroy it entirely."
"That's about the size of it," Obby agreed, nodding its head, "And we know neither why it was done, nor the actual agent who set it up."
"Phew. And we think this has something to do with the Castophrenic Widowhood?"
Obby did not have anything even remotely resembling shoulders; nonetheless, it managed to convey a very plausible shrug.
"Weeell," it began, "Only because the Widowhood specifically made possession of the Delphic Chaosarium a non-negotiable factor in their demands, so any action there is suspicious, a cause for concern. We have to assume that the CW will try to press matters by force of arms. Which is why I am on my way there right now, at the best speed I can manage without severe engine damage."
"Will you be able to defend the Chaosarium?" he demanded, "Without most of your warships?"
"I'm not entirely without resources, even now," Obby chided, then added more sadly, "And, in any case, it might not have made any difference. Let me show you this second briefing."
This time, the welter of information in Matlyen's head concerned the Incident Group of ship Minds ironically known as the Coleopterologists, their review of the discovery of the Eater of Planets some years ago, and the number of black holes the Eater claimed to have produced.
"Twenty million ships!" Matlyen shouted, even before the momentary confusion of the transition back to reality had abated, "That’s really a lot, isn’t it?"
"That's our current upper bound estimate," Obby agreed, "It could be less. Or more. And, yes, it is a lot. Enough to cause us some severe difficulties. Of course, we had many more ships than that at the end of the Idiran War, but that was centuries ago, and most of those craft were decommissioned at the time."
"But how could there be so many of their ships out there without us knowing? Or even noticing?" he demanded.
"The galaxy is a big place," the Avatar said apologetically, "And Castophrenic Widowhood ships are notoriously difficult to detect at a distance, for reasons we have only just begun to understand. And we can’t hear their communications, either, let alone decode them. So we have absolutely no real intelligence about the disposition of those CW ships, nor any actionable knowledge of their intentions."
The Avatar turned its surprisingly expressive eyes on Matlyen.
"If some significant fraction of those Castophrenic Widowhood ships decided to attack the Culture at the Delphic Chaosarium, it could all go very badly, very badly indeed," Obby went on, "This is why I wanted to evacuate my crew, or at least most of them, before I got anywhere near the place. And I am increasingly afraid this might turn into a suicide mission."