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1:  Ethical Action
 
 
     A faint line of opportunity, which at certain moments appeared before her mind's eye as an actual silver thread, ran through Veppora's life, stringing her days together with some sort of meaning.
     She vaguely knew that if it weren't for this thread she would just be marking time until she died.  An "old maid" in late middle age, she was tolerated by her nephews and their families, and got on well enough with others like her - but that was all the personal comfort she had.
     It was not just her that her friends and kin took for granted.  More riskily, they did it to their daily lives; they just got on with things as though civilization were guaranteed a future.
     Today, nevertheless, Veppora hummed softly to herself as her silver thread of purpose shone a bit brighter than usual....
     Gizwa, her niece by marriage, broke into her thoughts.  "Sorry, Veppora, the flatcar's broken down."
     Veppora went white.  The knife with which she'd been slicing vegetables - for a supper she was not to share - clattered to the floor.  "Oh, but I must get to my meeting."  Her homely face sagged, her cheeks quivered.
     "I'm really sorry," repeated Gizwa.  Her husband Bzurth entered the kitchen and said, "Yes, it's most unfortunate.  But stay and sup with us, won't you?  Stay overnight.  We've got...."
     Her nephew's chunky prosperous face, and his wife's matronly bloom, became figures seen through a blur as for a few moments Veppora came close to fainting, but she drew herself up and stated:  "I am sorry also, but I must be back home for my meeting.  Could any of the neighbours....?"
     "I looked," said Bzurth, "but their cars aren't there.  They're all still at work.  And by the time they get back it will be the hour of curfew."
     "Then I must set out at once."  And they could not dissuade her.  Bzurth did point out that the Noad had imposed the curfew for good reason; that what with rising levels of crime and possibly sedition in Narar, evenshine was no hour for a lone woman pedestrian; that he, Bzurth, would accompany her, except that if on the way back he got caught by the curfew -
     "Please don't argue any further," Veppora said primly, laying a hand on his arm.  "Of course I won't hear of you coming with me.  Gizwa needs you here; you have other guests staying with you tonight.  Don't put me in the position of being a nuisance.  It is my decision, that I set out immediately."
     Bzurth and Gizwa glanced at one another.  The glance said: yes, we've said enough, we've done our bit, let her go.
     It cannot truthfully be said that Veppora was an adventurous woman.  She was merely stubborn.  As she emerged, in hat and shawl, into the red-stone gully of Pnarash Street, her mind grasped anew that thread which guided her steps through life, and she now imagined it more like a rope, pulling her along the pavement, past looming walls, sinister alleys and knots of loitering youths, towards the sanctuary of Nowan House.
     It was especially important that she did not miss tonight's meeting, for she'd managed to get the travelling publicist, Lady Hyoen Freld of Jador, to come and speak.  Booking a foreign guest of some renown was a definite coup and it was this that had given extra shine to the thread of hope and meaning.  Who knows, thought Veppora, I might induce her to start up a branch in Jador, which would mean I could truthfully say that notice has been taken of my organization in another city.  Maybe this'll turn out to be the most important Ethical Action meeting ever!
     But only if I get there.
     The air was dimming to a face-blurring dusk as Pnarash Street debouched into Kensh Avenue and Veppora hesitated at the sight of the tree-lined vista, wide and only sparsely lit, where pedestrians were few.  She must cross the avenue, preferably at an oblique angle to get to the side-road she wanted as quickly as possible.  She had heard stories of people being mugged - or worse - in this area and she caught her breath at the sight of five large young men scuffing their boots against the kerb some fifty yards away, in the direction she needed to go.  She must advance, outwardly confident no matter what rasped at her insides.  As she cringed past the youths she heard one indistinct remark in a tone she definitely did not like; her skin tightened almost painfully as she listened for footsteps following, yet it did not happen.  Those particular yobs did not attack.  They receded and suddenly it was obvious that they were unimportant.
     So why did unease still grip her shoulders and cause them to twitch?  Something in these darkening streets was giving her mind a nudge more disagreeable than anything commonly classified as fear.
     How do you know that if you disturb things too much, Dmara won't come to you?
     Veppora shared the widespread popular belief that the origin of evil was locatable.  She, and millions of others, had no doubt that it lurked in the dead city of human origins thousands of miles away on the other side of the civilized world.  To this belief she added her own personal conviction that it was the duty of the governments of the living cities to unite and mount an expedition to eradicate or exorcise Dmara, decisively, for all time.  Not for nothing was Ethical Action the name and watchword of her organization.  Yet this evening, stumbling throught the dim streets of Narar, she suddenly wondered whether she had done the right thing in asking that foreign woman to address the meeting tonight.
     After all, the thing's out there; it exists; it is not asleep; it surely can and will respond to international pressure by retaliating against those who've had a hand in disturbing it.
     When she finally reached her house unharmed she was shaking.  She burst in and locked the door behind her and switched on all the lights, almost drunk with relief.  Well!  A drink might be quite sensible, at that!She hurried upstairs to her room where she poured herself a glass of strong stuff, thankful that no one had yet arrived to witness her dubious means of regaining her nerve.  Gulping, she reflected that results were what mattered.  Everything was back on course now.  How comforting to have a steady objective in one's life, an aim which was in no danger of being realized.  Or, if it were ever realized, she would either be long dead or so old that no one would expect her to take a hand in the actual expedition to Dmara....
     She bustled down to prepare the lounge.  Its richness soothed her: the carpeting and panelling, the lamplit glows, were medicine for the mind as she went around straightening chairs, plumping cushions and putting the pile of spare notices out on the little table by the door:
 
Date and time:
the third hour of evenshine,
Day 20,867 of the Nitrogen Era.
Venue:  Nowan House, Ungezazz Street, Narar.
Guest speaker:  the Lady Hyoen Freld of Jador.
Veppora Munoo will take the Chair. 
Visitors welcome.
Members are urged to make every effort to attend.
 
     Proudly she thought: "I successfully made my own effort to attend" - though in the midst of her gladness she could not escape the hunch that something important within her had changed.
     The foreign guest speaker was the first to arrive.  Hyoen Freld was younger, smaller and lither than Veppora.  Behind her thick glasses the woman looked reasonably smart and attractive, and her manner was appreciative and sincere as she shook hands and offered thanks for being invited.
     "Is this your first visit to Narar?" asked Veppora politely.
     "It is, though I cannot think why," Hyoen answered.  "I'm afraid that the pattern of my roamings has so far depended too much on the convenienc of the moment.  I should plan mroe meticulously."
     Veppora was a little annoyed by the blithe assumption that anyone with enough money could still roam around Syoom the way folk used to do.  All right, Hyoen Freld had a lot more money and a lot more luck than most people, but some day her ladyship would find that the supply of both had run dry....
     Besides this irritation there lurked, far in the background of Veppora's mind, the new dread of success: just possibly there was a risk that this smartie might provide a spurt towards precipitate action against Dmara.
     As other members began to arrive the hostess' mood lightened.  It was  a good turnout: about thirty people eventually settled themselves on the armchairs, couches and cushions in a semi-circle facing the great wooden desk.  As soft light from pillared lamps poured its generous comfort over the scene, Dmara and its horrors seemed impossibly far away.  The clock struck the hour; the chatter died down; Veppora Munoo took the Chair.  "It is my privilege to introduce...." she began.
     But soon she was thinking:  Whatever I expected, it wasn't this.
     Right from the beginning of the guest's speech the gathering was given a new slant on the problem of evil.  It was very non-traditional.  Soon they were all laughing as if evil could be reduced to buffoonery.
     "You won't believe this," Hyoen Freld told them, "but recently, in my home city of Jador, a campaign has begun to replace our ancient system of measurement (inches, feet, yards and miles) with a set of polysyllabic terms having no evocative or descriptive power, the sole merit of the new system being that it facilitates multiplication and division by powers of ten.  Thus instead of inches we're told to use foopisnargles; instead of yards, snargles; and instead of miles, kruntisnargles.
     "Wait," she held up her hand to control the audience's incredulous mirth, "till you hear how the Jadorian authorities are also mucking about with the measurement of time.
     "In order to make people work harder and use their hours better by getting up earlier, the government has told us that we must all put our clocks forward one hour!  Seriously, I'm not joking!  They really believe that the only way to get us Jadorians out of bed is to pretend that it is one hour later than it really is!  But I see that you're having trouble accepting what I'm saying," she went on as heads swivelled in perplexity even while bodies were close to being convulsed with laughter.  "Well, all I can say to that is, come to Jador and see and hear for yourselves.
     "And if you do listen to Jadorians speak, you may note something pretty mad in that department too: namely, the growing habit among my people of using the word 'She' as a polite form of 'you'.  And more serious still, reports are coming in of the simple past tense dropping out of use, so that for instance 'I have given' is replacing 'I gave', as in, 'yesterday I have given my grandmother a birthday present'....
     "All this, of course, is too barmy to be natural.  Something is influencing and rotting our minds."
     Now she was getting to her point.  The audience, captivated for the moment, went quiet.
     "The something," continued Hyoen, "is called by us the Corruption-Ray, or C-Ray.  I daresay you've heard the theory, though the fashion is to decry it.  And though I am aware that you people put the blame instead on spooks from Dmara, yet your aims and mine coincide insofar as we all want a better world, and we even agree that the source of the evil in our times is to be found residing in some place.  Where we differ, is that I say the real culprit is a group of scientific criminals engaged in an international conspiracy.  Forget Dmara!  It's just a cover, a distraction, an excuse!  We face a conspiracy whose headquarters - whence they aim the C-Ray at our cities - is yet to be found.  How to find it, how to defeat it: I have no idea.  That's why I am seeking support wherever I can.
     "Thank you for listening to me."
     "Thank you, Lady Hyoen," siad Veppora graciously.  I need not have worried.  This woman isn't going to get anywhere.  "Questions from the floor?"
     A portly bespectacled man put up his hand and said, "How are these evil C-Rays aimed?  From towers?  Airships?  And if so, how come nobody has seen them?  I'm puzzled."
     Hyoen smiled tightly.  "Some kinds of heavy-light, you may be aware, travel in arcs.  According to our theory the trajectory of the C-Ray is like that of a surface-to-surface missile.  It could be launched from anywhere to anywhere."
     A formidably handsome woman in a long velvety gown asked, "What could be the motive of those who fire this....  er.... C-Ray?  Surely they must get bored, living in hiding as they must.  What's in it for them?"
     "Their motive," Hyoen said with a bit of a snap in her voice, "in Jador at least, is to deprive people of their roots by destroying their network of cultural referents.  Anything well-established, anything of good quality, is a target."
     "Yes but why?  Why should anybody do this?"
     "It is of course done with the aim of undermining public spirit. This, in turn, weakens the state, making it more vulnerable to conquest or control by whoever is doing this.  When matters have gone far enough, they'll show their hand.  By then it will be too late for Syoom."
     "Do your compatriots agree with you about this conspiracy?"
     "Very few of them agree, and none are in positions of importance," admitted Hyoen, sick at heart in her disappointment at the scepticism of this audience.  "A handful of my correspondents in other cities have some influence, but it's all just a drop in the bucket, I'm afraid."
     "And so you came to Narar."
     "Yes, I have come to Narar."  The way Hyoen said it, one could tell that she meant that this was her last throw.  "As you know, your city is in some respects further than mine on the road to social decay."  The guest speaker looked round and saw assent in all their faces.  No one was prepared to argue that one.  "I thought to bring some of you home with me as witnesses to warn the people of Jador of the future that lies in wait for them.  Then it occurred to me that it might also work the other way around.  That is to say, I saw possibilities in using Jador itself, to warn Narar.  If only you could believe what I'm telling you...."
     Her voice trailed off and Veppora spoke a kindly rebuke from the Chair:
     "My feeling, Hyoen, is that it is all very well for you, having lived all your life in the relative freedom of Jador, to complain about minor silliness such as tinkering with measurement and clocks, but what you perhaps have yet to realize is the degree to which we in Narar have to put up with real oppression.  Here, for example, if the Noad deigned to notice my humble organization, he cold imprison us all tonight, without trial.  Try to take this in, and you will understand why we have merely been entertained and not enflamed by your speech."
     (As she listened to her own words, Veppora Munoo experienced something bright snap inside her.  What had she done?  Where was the thread?  Gone to someone else.)
     Hyoen bowed her head as she replied, "I came here quite well aware of the oppression you mention, but also with the hope of inducing you to think about its cause."
     "And now that you have gauged the sense of our meeting - where will you go next?"  Veppora had to be remorseless now.  Her silver thread gone,her life looked blank from now on, but a blankness was better than the terrrible fear that had encroached a short while before; the fear that she might get what she had asked for.  Now the chance and the hope and the terror were all gone.
     "It has just occurred to me," said Hyoen Freld bitterly, "that the oppressors themselves may practise thinking, if only so as to maintain their position.  I know that your Noad is supposed to be a mere dictator, but...."
 

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