A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows by Poul Anderson. Chapter 9, 10, 11, 12

ever met?”

“Occasional Merseians have visited my planet, even resided there for

periods of study,” Aycharaych pointed out.

Yes. Flandry remembered one such, who had endangered him here upon

Talwin; how far in the past that seemed, and how immediately near! I

realize why the coordinates of your home are perhaps the best-kept

secret in the Roidhunate. I doubt if a thousand beings from offworld

know; and in most of them, the numbers have been buried deep in their

unconsciousness, to be called forth by a key stimulus which is also


Secret, secret … What do we know about you that is substance and not


The data fled by, just behind his eyes.

Chereion’s sun was dim, as Flandry himself had discovered when he

noticed Aycharaych was blind in the blue end of the spectrum though

seeing farther into the red than a man can. The planet was small, cold,

dry–deduced from Aycharaych’s build, walk, capabilities,

preferences–not unlike human-settled Aeneas, because he could roam

freely there and almost start a holy war to split the Empire, nineteen

years ago.

In those days he had claimed that the enigmatic ruins found upon many

worlds of that sort were relics of his own people, who ranged and ruled

among the stars in an era geologically remote. He claimed … He’s as

big a liar as I am, when either of us wants to be. If they did build and

then withdraw, why? Where to? What are they upon this night?

Dismiss the riddles. Imperial Intelligence knew for certain, with scars

for reminders, he was a telepath of extraordinary power. Within a radius

of x meters, he could read the thoughts of any being, no matter how

alien, using any language, no matter how foreign to him. That had been

theoretically impossible. Hence the theory was crudely modified (there

is scant creativity in a waning civilization) to include suggestions of

a brain which with computerlike speed and capacity analyzed the impulses

it detected into basic units (binary?), compared this pattern with the

one which its own senses and knowledge presented, and by some incredible

process of trial and error synthesized in seconds a code which closely

corresponded to the original.

It did not seem he could peer far below the surface thoughts, if at all.

That mattered little. He could be patient; or in a direct confrontation,

he had skill to evoke the memories he wanted. No wonder that the highest

Merseian command paid heed to him. The Empire had never had a more

dangerous single enemy.


Flandry grew aware of the other’s luminous regard. ” ‘Scuse me,” he

said. “I got thinking. Bad habit.”

“I can guess what.” Aycharaych’s smile continued. “You speculate whether

I am your sole Chereionite colleague.”

“Yes. Not for the first time.” Flandry drank again. “Well, are you? What

few photographs or eyewitness accounts we’ve garnered, of a Chereionite

among outsiders–never more than one. Were all of them you?”

“You don’t expect me to tell you. I will agree to what’s obvious, that

partakers in ephemeral affairs, like myself, have been rare among my

race. They laid such things aside before your kind were aught but apes.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“In action I find an art; and every art is a philosophical tool, whereby

we may seek to win an atom deeper into mystery.”

Flandry considered Aycharaych for a silent span before he murmured: “I

came on a poem once, in translation–it goes back a millennium or

more–that’s stayed with me. Tells how Pan–you know our Classical

myths–Pan is at a riverside, splashing around, his goat hoofs breaking

the lilies, till he plucks a reed and hollows it out, no matter the

agony it feels; then the music he pipes forth enchants the whole forest.

Is that what you think of yourself as doing?”

“Ah, yes,” Aycharaych answered, “you have the last stanza in mind, I

believe.” Low:

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,

To laugh as he sits by the river,

Making a poet out of a man:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,

For the reed which grows nevermore again

As a reed with the reeds in the river.

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