“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
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
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.