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.
Veppora hummed softly to herself as her silver thread of purpose shone a
bit brighter than
Gizwa, her niece
by marriage, broke into her thoughts. "Sorry, Veppora, the
flatcar's broken down."
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
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...."
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
"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
"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
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
Bzurth and Gizwa
glanced at one another. The glance said: yes, we've said
enough, we've done our bit, let her go.
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
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
But only if I get
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
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
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.
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
Venue: Nowan House, Ungezazz
Guest speaker: the Lady Hyoen Freld
Veppora Munoo will take the Chair.
Members are urged to make every effort to
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
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....
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
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
But soon she was
thinking: Whatever I expected, it wasn't
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
"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,
"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
"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
"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,
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?"
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."
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."
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
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
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."
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
"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
Her voice trailed
off and Veppora spoke a kindly rebuke from the Chair:
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
(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
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
"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,
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