My protagonist, let's call her Alice, must acquire a priceless artifact, located deep inside an ancient temple.

If this were a ruin, the exercise would be academic, but the Temple was protected by the ancient and terrible power that built it. The only way in and out of the Innermost Chamber where the the artifact is located is through a vast spiral hallway. One's innermost thoughts simply reverberate across this long Hall like so many echoes. The priests protecting the place can hear these thoughts, and a single thought by the priests can activate the large golem army of statues that currently stand immobile across the length of the place.

There are always three priests in the Reverberation Hall listening for stray heretical or otherwise dangerous thoughts, each of which can activate the defenses. Only one pilgrim is allowed to enter at a time, and hall is so vast it takes 10 minutes to walk across the length of it. Along the way there are numerous mural images: admonishments to turn back if not pure of heart and purpose, depictions of thieves (covered in hay for some reason) being crushed by heavy golem fists, pilgrims worshiping the meticulously depicted artifacts in rapturous joy. There are representations of eyes everywhere, and they all seem to follow the pilgrim as she makes her way across the hall.

Now Alice does not have an army to assault the place (and frankly, I doubt the adamantine golems would be much troubled) but she needs to gain control of a particular artifact against the wishes of the priests. Since she has a replica, if she does manage to gain it and walk out, the theft would probably not be noticed for a long time, since the priests do not patrol or (out of respect) listen to the prayers and thoughts in the Innermost Chamber where the artifacts are.

How do I get Alice to gain the artifact, against the wishes of the priests? How do you avoid thinking that you are a thief, while, well, being a thief?

...well, besides the obvious way. :)

LATE EDIT: Thanks everyone for the very ingenious answers! @DanSmolinske had the most creative answer in my view, with the benefit of using elements from prior steps of Alice's saga as outlined here on Worldbuilding. @WhatRoughBeast's answer will definitely be blended in as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Wait, what is "the obvious way"? $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 17 '15 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @KSmarts Thinking "I'm not a thief, I'm not a thief, I'm not a thief..." $\endgroup$ – Mast Mar 17 '15 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Is there any way to have some page devoted to cataloging the continued exploits of Alice? Ooh, or maybe there could be a tag for it... $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Mar 17 '15 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ "hall is so vast it takes 10 minutes to walk across the length of it" ... FYI this would be about 830 meters, assuming average walking speed. The average person could probably run this distance in around 2 minutes. $\endgroup$ – Michael Mar 17 '15 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh I guess you just gotta stay vigilant. I'll let y'all know when the book comes out, heh. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 17 '15 at 17:18

16 Answers 16


She will need to utilize the Dream Thief.

First, Alice will need a confederate (ideally a friend).

Second, using visualization techniques Alice will construct artificial memories. One of these will be being sent to the Dream Thief to retrieve a memory regarding an artifact from the temple. The other will be a memory from the perspective of her confederate of stealing the artifact and replacing it with a replica.

Third, Alice will visit the Dream Thief. Using the meditation techniques from Aaru's answers, she will allow her actual memories of the situation to be stolen. This will leave her with only the artificial memories.

Fourth, the confederate will confess to Alice, asking that the artifact be returned without the priests being alerted - that she needs to help him correct his wrong.

Now Alice will go to the temple believing that she is not a thief, but is in fact going to return a valuable artifact. She doesn't want the priests to realize what's happening to protect her friend, so she will need to concentrate on the general feeling of correcting a wrong - this should be relatively easy to do though, and she can mask that she's correcting it immediately. Regardless, this should be substantially easier than masking that she's a thief.

After she makes the switch, Alice will return to her friend and be informed of the actual situation. In order to help her believe, she should write down the situation beforehand and sign it with some sort of key that she will recognize as genuine.

Alice may notice inconsistencies in her memories and thoughts, creating doubts. This is why she's creating two artificial memories - the fact that she was sent to the Dream Thief to retrieve these memories (as she believes), should help her rationalize those away as being the result of her second battle.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean confident, not confederate? $\endgroup$ – Towell Mar 18 '15 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @XosMel: noun - a person, group, nation, etc., united with others in a confederacy; an ally. Alt: an accomplice, especially in a mischievous or criminal act. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 18 '15 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ Loved it that you used an in-Alice universe solution! Accepted. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 18 '15 at 15:54

Alfred Bester raised the same question in "The Demolished Man", where a successful businessman needs to conceal his intent to murder a man from telepaths. His solution is to look up an acquaintance who writes advertising jingles, and ask (apparently innocently) what is the most unforgettable jingle she's ever written, the sort you can't get out of your head.

"Oh. Pepsis, we call 'em."


"Dunno. They say because the first one was written centuries ago by a character named Pepsi. I don't buy that. I wrote one once..." Duffy winced in recollection. "Hate to think of it even now. Guaranteed to obsess you for a month. It haunted me for a year."

"You're rocketting."

"Scout's honor, Mr. Reich. It was 'Tenser, Said The Tensor.' I wrote it for that flop show about the crazy mathematician. They wanted nuisance value and they sure got it. People got so sore they had to withdraw it. Lost a fortune."

"Let's hear it."

"I couldn't do that to you."

"Come on, Duffy. I'm really curious."

"You'll regret it."

"I don't believe you."

"All right, pig," she said, and pulled the punch panel toward her. "This pays you back for that no-guts kiss."

Her fingers and palm slipped gracefully over the panel. A tune of utter monotony filled the room with agonizing, unforgettable banality. It was the quintessence of every melodic cliché Reich had ever heard. No matter what melody you tried to remember, it invariably led down the path of familiarity to "Tenser, Said The Tensor." Then Duffy began to sing:

Eight, sir; seven, sir;

Six, sir; five, sir;

Four, sir; three, sir;

Two, sir; one!

Tenser, said the Tensor.

Tenser, said the Tensor.

Tension, apprehension,

And dissension have begun.

"Oh my God!" Reich exclaimed.

"I have some real gone tricks in that tune," Duffy said, still playing. "Notice the beat after 'one'? That's a semicadence. Then you get another beat after 'begun.' That turns the end of the song into a semi-cadence, too, so you can't ever end it. The beat keeps you running in circles, like: Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, appre—"

"You little devil!" Reich started to his feet, pounding his palms on his ears. "I'm accursed. How long is this affliction going to last?"

"Not more than a month."

And it works just fine.

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    $\begingroup$ I like it, even just for annoying the priests. Those sanctimonious bastards. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 17 '15 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Surely they're referring to an Oscar Myer? $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Mar 17 '15 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Zibbobz I wish they were... $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 17 '15 at 21:47

Overwhelming Thoughts

The other option, besides not thinking about it, is to simply overwhelm the priests with thoughts. This is assuming that these priests can only hear as fast as Alice can think them. If she can think faster than the priests can parse... she could be there and back with the idol before one of the priests get to the "steal the artifact" thought.

She can even think distressing or otherwise distracting thoughts to these priests. Something to keep them off balance while she makes her way through. Should she think of saucy women, philosophical conundrums, or simply rapid fire whatever comes into her mind? This technique is an option, but an exhausting one and somewhat risky one.

Hide Behind Language / Thought Encoding

She could also hide behind another language. Assuming she knows one the priests don't know. After all, "Tausch das mit dem, Alice" sounds nothing like "Exchange that with this, Alice." She merely needs to encode her thoughts so the priests do not understand her true purpose by simply not understanding her thoughts.

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    $\begingroup$ The language barrier was my thought, too. I was reminded of an episode of Heroes where Noah Bennett frustrated an attempt at reading his mind by thinking in Japanese. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 17 '15 at 14:09

Thoughts are hard to hide

Dan Smolinske's answer has one fatal flaw: though Alice won't think about stealing the object, she sill surely think about returning the object. If the priests are as watchful as they claim, she would immediately be detained, and once it was discovered that she was carrying a fake, the game would be up, and she would be reduced to a viscous fluid.

I make two assumptions: one, that any thought of moving, replacing, or otherwise touching the artifact(s) would trigger a response, and two, that the chamber echoes words in any language, but only words, rather than the full imagery of thought.

Alice needs to encode her thoughts, and in a way that the priests cannot decode. If she thinks in another language, there is always the chance that she might slip up, or worse that one of the priests speak that language and catch her red-handed. Red-minded? Anyway.


Rather than convincing herself (through training, hypnosis, etc.) that she is not stealing the artifact, Alice should convince herself that words mean something different. Alice needs to replace words that she may think with other words; replacing 'steal' with 'worship' means that when she thinks, "I'm going to steal that artifact," it comes out, "I'm going to worship that artifact!" Replacing 'thief' with 'sinner' means Alice thinks, "I'm a thief," but the priests hear, "I'm a sinner." Other suspicious words should also be traded out: "I hope they don't catch me" should become "I hope they don't hate me," for instance.

Verbal Overlap

Alternately, it may be as simple as quoting words from memory. When I speak out loud, my "inner voice" is drowned out; further, since the long passage is from memory, Alice's thoughts will be turned to memory, rather than thieving. She should memorize two passages, each about 15 minutes long, and quote them on her way to and from the Inner Sanctum. Inside, she can take as long as she wants to secure the object, and resume quoting when she exits. She should choose monologues, rather than poetry or songs; poetry can be too simple to remember, due to rhyming. A prepared speech or sermon would be an excellent choice, especially if it has to do with piety; anything to distract the priests from its true purpose.

Non-verbal language

An acquaintance of mine, fluent in ASL, underwent a surgery that caused total deafness for about a month. She said that at the end of the month, she often thought in sign language, rather than in English; after she could hear again, her inner voice transitioned back to spoken language within a few days.

Likewise, Alice first needs to learn a language-complete sign language (such as ASL). She also needs to find several contacts in the deaf community; they can help her learn faster. After a month of very hard study, she should have a decent grasp of the language. She then needs to inflict (reversible) deafness on herself, and communicate only with her new deaf friends, to buffer herself against spoken language. If a magical/mystical/technological means of inflicting deafness is not available, cotton or wool stuffed in the ear and wrapped with a bandage works surprisingly well. Thinking in ASL uses similar areas of the brain as thinking in a spoken language; however, it is not actually English. Some words are similar, but many words involve thoughts or relationships that are hard to express in English. After a full month of thinking in ASL and communicating in ASL, she should be prepared.

With her self-enforced deafness and fully sign-language thoughts, she should be able to sail through the hall in complete silence, at least as far as the priests can hear. In fact, if they rely entirely upon hearing thoughts, she may even be invisible to them!

Even better, if they do eventually put two and two together and realize it was Alice that swiped the artifact, they will be looking for a deaf woman, throwing them off the scent entirely.

All Three

As with any camouflage, more is almost always better. Using ASL to mask thoughts, removing the words "thief," "catch/caught," "kill," etc. from her mind, and quoting long passages can all stack together, resulting in a multi-layer deception that is almost impossible to detect, let alone decipher. Once Alice has learned sign language and tricked he mind into using the 'wrong' words, all she needs to do is sign (that is, use sign language to communicate) a long memorized passage, swipe the artifact, sign a different passage, and retreat with due haste!

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, will take your suggestions into consideration!! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 18 '15 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ I like the deaf thing, that's A++. I'm not convinced Alice would be any less likely to slip up with the first two techniques than with others, though (different language or concentrating on general principles rather than specifics, for example). $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 19 '15 at 0:19

Some form of hypnosis? She is not actively aware that she is there to steal the artifact, it is a compulsion buried under acceptable surface thoughts. When she actually comes in contact the artifact in question the compulsion triggers and she replaces it with the duplicate. Once the deed is done the compulsion fades and is replaced by a sense of contentment so that she can make her exit safely.


Alice can achieve this goal with self hypnosis.

By hypnotising herself, Alice can temporarily make herself believe that the item that she is carrying and the item she is retrieving are equivalent, and that to exchange one for the other is morally neutral, of no more concern than swapping the positions of two bricks in a stack of bricks, or flipping over a pebble on the road.

Then, additionally, she needs to hypnotise herself to be concerned not with the object or replica that she is carrying, that the things she is carrying are as unimportant to her as our clothing is to us when we have other things on our minds, and that she is present only to use the temple for its legitimate purposes.

Thirdly, she needs to hypnotize herself so that when she sees the artefact, she will exchange it for the one she is carrying and then forget that she did so, as well as not performing this task again, so that the item is exchanged once only, and is not exchanged back.

Finally, Alice should hypnotize herself that she will not remember all this hypnosis (only act on it) while she is within the precincts of the temple in question.

When she emerges from the temple, she will have the realisation that she exchanged the replica she took in for the original.

To the priests of the temple, Alice should sound as if she has the thoughts of the typical worshipper, both coming and going, and should not arouse the suspicions of the priests. Alice will not have the thoughts of a thief, since while she is in the temple, she will have no thought that what she is doing or is there for is wrong.


Find someone who creates golems (who presumably don't have thoughts to read), and get them to make you a small one to act like a pilgrim, and perform the switch.


Use post-hypnotic suggestion on an unwitting pilgrim. Or on yourself, so you forget what you're really doing, until you get through the hall.


Wear a tinfoil helmet, to block the mind-reading.


You can't do it by 'not thinking about it'.

So you purposely think about something else. One possibility is thinking about a dance like movement such as tai-chi, I picked that over more martial arts because it is less likely to 'raise suspicions'. She can 'dance' all the way through absorbed in the movements.

I also used this since she is a 'great martial artist'.

However, she could also pick 1-2 things she is worried about and would in theory 'pray' for if she were actually going there for some purpose other than theft.

Which ever way she goes, she has to plan ahead of time and concentrate on that, 'forgetting' what her purpose is actually to do. Until she is free. She will also have to continue the exercise on the way back out. If she picked the worry/prayer aspect, she will need to switch to a contentment that 'all will be well' now.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I thought about that too, as in counting the cracks in the floor, although the 'do not think about an elephant in a cherry tree' task seems hard, to say the least, especially with all the elephant paitings. Let me ponder this for a little. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 17 '15 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't be interesting if she didn't slip up at a certain point. This seems like a far better plot device than self hypnosis could be if not for simply the possibility of slipping. Maybe she slips up, but perhaps worrying about getting killed by the golems is in of itself not heretical (otherwise imagine how many pilgrims seeing those paintings would get slaughtered), and she saves herself focusing on that thought alone until she exits only to realize she has the artifact in hand afterwards. $\endgroup$ – Neil Mar 17 '15 at 10:25

Hypnosis is kind of code for "enforced thought control" and language changing seems a bit dubious to stake one's life on... well, yes, if there's a means of compelling things so that innermost thoughts won't leak then that could solve it... but suppose the priests are wise to those, or can detect them?

Do the priests change in shifts? It sounds like only the hall has this special reverberating power, so perhaps outside it, priests can't detect thoughts so clearly, or at all. Can she and 2 friends masquerade as the 3 priests before they reach the hall? Are there times the artefact is removed by the priests themselves (for ceremonies or other events) so it's not protected this way?

I prefer misdirection. She has a replica artefact. She could wait for a (genuine) visitor to leave the Reverberation Hall, and ensure the fake is placed somewhere they will see it. At that point, an entering friend who "sees" the visitor pick up the replica, "screams" (from religious sacrilege shock!) and calls the priests and guards because the artefact has been stolen and removed by the other visitor. In the confusion, the priests will be paying little attention for a while.

If the replica is good, and she is clever, the visitor and priests will be kept busy for some time, outside the Hall's reverberation area. The way is now open to remove the true artefact. As the priests believe there is a thief, the fact that the innermost hall does not contain the artefact when she leaves, will not cause any attention to fall on her.


Let's get really interesting here. If your priests can hear all the thoughts reverberating around the hall, then it's probably true they can hear each other's thoughts. However, the fact that only one pilgrim at a time can enter implies that figuring out who's thinking what is difficult, or even impossible. Thus, if Alice knows enough about these priests, she can think something that one of them might think, in the way they would think it, and they would think one of them thought it.

For instance, she could think "I think these other priests are going to steal the artifact", or even "These other priests are so stupid for thinking I actually want to protect the artifact". With practice, she could think it furtively, just barely letting it slip out like it was an accident. Suddenly, all three priests turn on each other, focusing every ounce of their psychic powers onto each other. Alice can then run in and get the artifact.

Of course, this presupposes a lot of things:

1- The priests are suspicious of one another. I think this is pretty straightforward, if you spend your life as a guard anything could look like a thief.

2 - The confusion will last 20 minutes or more, allowing Alice to get in and out. This is a tough one to support, but as long as she lays the groundwork and gets the priests riled up, she could probably stop masking her thoughts and just let them feed into the confusion. They'd think one of them was thinking about stealing it, and so forth. Still shouldn't take too long, but maybe this is when the floodgates open, and all their suppressed thoughts come out.

3 - None of the priests lock down the building once this starts. I assume they each have the power to undo each other's commands, so they shouldn't worry about it.

It's still a very dangerous plan, but I think if you wanted it to work, you could make it work.


1) Doesn't know what she is thinking:

Singing a song over and over, and thinking in a foreign language are both good suggestions. So why not combine them, and take it a step further. Alice should find and memorize the most catchy, annoying, repetitive ear-worm she can find in a language she does not speak, and the priests are not likely to speak either. If confronted, she can honestly say that she does not know what it means, and (less honestly) claim that she is there to pray for it to get out of her head.

2) Inure them to her thoughts.

This one will only work if Alice has some time; a month at least. But she could go in, thinking not just about stealing the artifact, but other criminal, dirty, or disturbing thoughts. "I want to kill my boss." "I wonder if they would notice if I walked out of here with the artifact?" "My neighbor's son is cute, I should seduce him before someone else can."

When the priests confront her, she would apologize profusely, and say that she would never do any of those things, but she can't help thinking them. And the Hall only makes it worse. And that is why she needs to pray. Alice would ask them to escort her to the altar to observe her sincerity. Pray, thank them, and leave without doing anything, except think more bad things on the way out.

Repeat every day for two or three weeks, and eventually the priests will expect her, and expect her to think those things. Once they stop paying attention to her, she is free to make the swap.

Then, she should continue it for at least another week, so they don't suspect her. Bonus points for being the one to point out the swap a few days later, and then continuing to pray for a few more days after that.

3) Distract herself and them. And the reader?

This one might not work, depending on the tone and target audience of your story. But if Alice was to get herself... turned on, shall we say, it would keep both her mind off her true purpose, and distract the priests. Could be played for laughs. And if they do confront her, she can claim religious rapture.


See the short story "Clothes Make the Man" by Henri Duvernois. In it, Tango, the stupidest of a threesome of thieves, is told to stand guard outside a home the other two are robbing, dressed as a police officer.

"All you do is walk up and down the street," Mireault said. "Easy and slow, like a real cop on his beat. Then if anyone hears us working in the house they won’t get suspicious, seeing you. Keep walking until we come out, then hang around a few minutes covering us. That's all there is to it. We’ll meet back here. Now you understand?"

While doing so,

Tango fell to thinking of how he had looked in the mirror. With the impressive image vivid in his mind, he straightened his shoulders and threw out his chest again. Standing erect, he tried a salute. It felt good. He grinned, oddly pleased, and walked on.


After a few more trips, he found an old lady hesitating on the corner. He saw her make two or three false starts to get across and each time nervously come back.… Tango held up his other arm majestically, as if halting a horde of roaring trucks. With infinite dignity they crossed to the other side. It was a pretty picture indeed.

"Thank you so much, officer!" she said.

"Please madam," Tango said, "don’t mention it." He paused. "That’s what we’re here for, you know," he added.

A bit later,

when, halfway down the block, two figures came skimming over the garden wall and landed on the pavement near him, he was in no mood to stop.… While Mireault and the Eel stared at him in sheer paralyzed horror, he stuffed the shiny whistle in his mouth and blew a salvo of blasts loud and long enough to bring all the police in Paris.

"Crooks, robbers!" he bellowed. "I arrest you. I arrest you in the name of the law!"

So if you want your character to not have any thoughts that she's a crook, have her pretend to be something else, to the extent that she has herself convinced.


Given adamantine golems suggests D&D world. If so, a direct assault is unlikely but a teleporting maneuver could work. They just had to have used an anti-magic field to defend so.

We're going to need two wands. One with two teleport charges (easy enough), the other with a full load of disjunction prepared by a 20th level mage (expensive).

Procedure: fire burst of disjunction down the corridor to clear out any anti-magic fields, then teleport do artifact. Replace. By this time they've noticed and reset the anti-magic fields so fire another burst back down the corridor and teleport out. Now run like the golems are after you.


There must be a geometric way to solve this problem, if you assume thought-waves are like sound-waves or light-waves, travel in a straight line and obey the laws of reflection. You could probably enter the chamber at a strategic angle so your thoughts would bounce along the walls without hitting any of the points where the priests are standing. Maybe we should redirect this question to the physics forums?

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    $\begingroup$ Try quadratic residue shaped sound dampener as used in concert halls. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 18 '15 at 8:47

How about she simply focuses her attention on her breath or the sensations her body produces while moving (also called: meditation)? - No thoughts would be emitted that way (you may get distracted and think of something, depending how good your concentration is)

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Paolo. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 18 '15 at 16:06

There is a famous SF story concerning a murder mystery in a society of telepaths. The Demolished Man won a the first Hugo. You might read that and see what techniques he uses to hide his thoughts; e.g. a "psych song" going over end over in his head obsessively, which was obtained on the pretext of quitting smoking (still a problem in the 24th century!). That's all I remember, since it has been over e0 years since I read it.

Also, read the real Minority Report story, not the movie. The purportrator hides his misdeeds by camouflaging against similar crimes that have already been logged and tend to "echo".

In more than one story, a phych-aware barrier or trap was traversed by means of being unconscious— either knocked out cold or mesmerized.

And of course if it can be detected and amplified, why not jammed and shielded?

Or why not animate an unthinking tool to go for you? Wind-up toy or gollem or projectile, as befitting the type of story.


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