The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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53. Student and Teacher

By agreement, the delegation from Atlar to Queen Celandine consisted of only three envoys: Jenna, Ashlin and the doctor. Green would have appeared to be the very embodiment of a threat, Justin the very embodiment of an insult. Derk wanted to stay on his ship.

Also by agreement, they were to meet the Queen at her beloved museum. She was already there, and a servant directed them to the spider room.

If this was calculated as a provocation, Jenna seemed ready to rise to it.

“For our lives, don’t slap her!” whispered Ashlin.

Jenna strode in to the room, past the creepy giant spider-models, and right up to the window where Celandine was peering into the glass tank of her funny-web spiders.

“Your majesty,” she said, her eyes flashing. She bowed. Her eyes came down to the level of the spider-tank, and she glanced sideways. Just spiders. Some of their webs were distorted, uneven. Nothing alarming at all really. Maybe she had used up all her lifetime supply of fear of spiders in one go. Most likely though, she was simply furious, and determined not to show any weakness. She could have an attack of the horrors in private later.

“Jenna. I am so glad you are still alive, and this ...”

Suddenly the Queen stared wide-eyed and flushed deep red.

“Hello, Celandine. Have you been a good girl?”

“Jeremy! You’ve got so ... bald!”

Doctor Hopkin stepped forward and bowed formally, but Celandine ran over and hugged him.

“Oh, that’s not fair,” she said into his shoulder, “that’s blatant manipulation. My best friend in childhood, my tutor, the only one who understood me.” She stood back and held him at arm’s length. “How could you let that dreadful old man use you like this?”

“I wouldn’t have, but this is important.”

“Don't assume I don't know how important it is.” She drew back. “The question is, have you any useful information for me?”

“Ashlin here has a theory.”

“Ashlin. You must be Jenna's boyfriend. Pleased to meet you, if slightly puzzled.” She glanced at Jenna, with a raised eyebrow. “What do you think you know about my forest, Ashlin?”

Ashlin looked to Jenna, but she didn't offer any help.

“Is your Your Majesty familiar with the story of the gruellus?”

“I should be; it's one of our folk tales. My mother told me it once.”

“Then, that's what's killing people in the forest. The forest itself has grown a mind of sorts, made of fungus and spiders, or rather, the webs of the spiders.”

“Hmm.”

“The gruellus was, we think, made using that same fungus. Now, it was mostly mindless. I don't really know how to explain about the webs, but—”

“But you don't need to. Thank you, Ashlin. May I ask the source of your information?”

“Well. The thing is, I breathed in some spores or something. I had visions for a few hours, and thought I was talking to the forest. I know what that must sound like, but real or not, it provided some insight into the problem.”

“Hmm. Jeremy?”

“I wasn't present. I came by a different route. Along the way I verified that a gruellus or something very like one had been constructed in Atlar using the same fungus. That situation has been dealt with.”

“So you had a sorceror at large? How interesting. If you would permit, I would like to provide some questions for him to answer.”

“That situation has been dealt with, Celandine.”

“Oh. Pity. Well, we have something more tangible to study. Sorcerors aren't usually very rigorous scholars anyway.”

Jenna was incredulous.

“You can't mean to study it. You should burn it before it gets any bigger.”

“Thank you for your advice, Jenna. I will consider it carefully before deforesting hundreds of square miles of my own country with fire. It's a mind. You have an ordinary mind, so it's perhaps never occurred to you, but I have an extraordinary mind, and I so have often given some thought to the question of what a mind is. I have come to the conclusion that any mind is extraordinary. A new kind of mind, more so.”

“So it’s a mind, and you think we should talk with it rather than destroy it?” said Ashlin, “It may not be possible to do either, but we should be very careful. It doesn’t think like us, so it is hard to predict. It may be able to outwit us.”

“It better not presume to try to outwit me,” said Celandine.

“Now remember what I taught you once, long ago,” said Doctor Hopkin. “You are cleverer than anyone else in the room, but sometimes you are not cleverer than everyone else in the room put together. This is one of those times. Please listen.”

“I am listening. I am not necessarily agreeing.”

“You perhaps feel some sympathy for it,” said Jeremy. “It has grown from mindless slime to whatever it is now in less than a hundred years. It only wakes in summer, and every summer it has to remember what it forgot through the winter, and make itself cleverer. In its own terms it is still very young. It is a new thing in the world, and I can understand why it fascinates you. But it's more dangerous than it seems.”

“I am aware of the danger. Don't assume you know what seems to me.” She seemed more offended by the suggestion of an intellectual rival than the threatened encroachment and destruction of her northern provinces.

“Celandine, you are getting angry. What do angry people do?” asked Doctor Hopkin.

“They make mistakes, I know,” she said, frowning. She waved away the admonition impatiently, but she nevertheless stood in silence for a few moments, thinking.

“What I do understand is, if it is so very unlike us, sympathy for it would be misplaced. It doesn't think the way we think. Its goals are different and its ability to negotiate and reciprocate trust might be nonexistent. It may not know those concepts at all. But there are other dangers in confronting it and teaching it the concept of war. Everyone loses a war.”

“But you just said you can't negotiate with it. So burn it.” said Jenna. “I can't believe you are being so stupid about this.”

“I can believe you are.”

Ashlin was watching Jenna's hand, ready to jump forward and prevent a career-and-life-limiting slap.

“I'm not convinced. I can't go back to Doctor Grey and tell him you are dealing with this, unless I'm convinced. I can't tell him in all honesty that he doesn't need to intervene.”

“Don't threaten me, Jenna, let's remain friends,” said Celandine, “I wasn't concerned about that idiot Olaf, and he had an army. I too am more dangerous than I seem.”

Doctor Hopkin shook his head, sadly. She took his arm.

“I would be otherwise, but the job demands it of me, Jeremy.”

She returned her gaze to Jenna.

“In any case, I don't know yet whether we can negotiate with a forest, but if we can, I agree we must negotiate from a position of strength. I drew up multiple plans for different scenarios, of course. When I thought it was just the spiders, I enlisted the help of Professor Dzervsk to ask about spider poison.”

“Is he the sorcerer-looking man with huge eyebrows?” asked Ashlin.

“He is indeed. A very apt description. Did you meet him, then? Why isn’t he here?”

“We left at once. He may still be waiting for instructions at Livanso,” said the doctor.

“Oh, that is troublesome. It’s one of the drawbacks to always being right; people stop thinking for themselves and always wait to see what you want them to do. Thank you, Jeremy, for teaching me at an early age not to punish people for getting things wrong. Otherwise just imagine! Nothing would ever get done at all.”

“But why spider venom?” asked Ashlin.

“I didn’t say spider venom. I said spider poison. Chemicals that can poison spiders. Ideally, without killing everything else in the forest or getting into the ground water and killing my beloved subjects. And here we have some experiments in spider poison.”

She pointed out each of her tanks of funny-web spiders in turn.

“Oil of hemp, some kind of cactus juice, extract of hallucinogenic mushrooms, coffee. See! The webs are all funny.”

She frowned slightly. “This empty case was poison from a rare frog. That’s probably too dangerous. Never mind that one. I couldn’t find anything suitable to use in large enough quantities. But it’s not really the spiders that matter, it's the webs. We don’t need to kill the spiders. We don’t need to risk poisoning everyone. We just need to make their webs inaccurate, defective, unsuitable for supporting an intelligent mind. We do to the forest what the forest did to Jenna’s boyfriend’s brain. It’s only fair.”

Ashlin frowned and opened his mouth, then shut it again.

“That buys you time. You keep it asleep in the summer as well as the winter, until you know what to do,” said Jenna.

“Convincing enough for you?”

Jenna didn't answer.

“How do we administer these poisons? I assume you put them in the water for these experiments, or applied them directly to the spiders?” asked Doctor Hopkin, peering into the glass tanks.

“To use them on a large scale, I think we'll put them on rotten meat. Maggots eat the meat, turn into very drunk flies, spiders eat the drunk flies, and build funny stupid webs instead of dangerous clever ones. Then we burn back the forest a bit, drain the land nearby so it’s too dry to support the fungus, and thus create a break all around it. Then, maybe I try to talk to it.”

Ashlin looked to Jenna, watching her shoulders tense, her head shake slowly.

“It might work. I think it's still a dangerous thing to play with,” she said at last.

Celandine strode to the door of the spider room, and knocked. Two servants opened the door. The audience was over. She turned back.

“Well, go back and tell your Regent Counsel whatever you feel you must. The opportunity to study a new kind of mind is too intriguing to pass by. And if I feel the need to play with it, perhaps I can even teach it to give me a good game of chess.”

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