We had to pass through the Iron Curtain, about which we had heard so much from previous expeditions. It was not a literal curtain of iron, but a system of holorays that wouldn't permit anything metallic to pass through: no equipment, no computers and, of course, no weapons. We found ourselves becalmed within it, unable to take a single step forward; the only solution was to take off our clothes and continue our journey naked. Once on the other side, though, we all felt cold and had difficulty breathing the planet's smog-filled atmosphere.
We walked across a fouled desert plain from which strange and stunted hills emerged here and there, like the finger-bones of a huge skeleton. Only the crest of these finger-like hills were inhabited by living beings; the natives had evidently abandoned the cities and villages of the plain because of the smog. We found many of these abandoned settlements, all in ruins, as though they had suffered some long and bloody conflict. In some of the derelict dwellings we found coats and dirty suits to cover our nakedness. We felt warmer then, but we looked rather silly, like the retreating soldiers of a beaten army.
At least, we thought, they won't be afraid of us.
Thus clad, we undertook the arduous climb to the summit of one of the digital hills, and eventually arrived at the gate of the natives' new abode. It looked like a medieval town. The towns in the plain had been much more advanced. A queue had formed before the gate, made up of suspicious characters like ourselves. They were being examined one by one by guards who were armed with swords and shields. Our commander decided that someone should be sent ahead to find out exactly what was going on. "Someone" turned out to be me.
When I approached the queue it became clear that the guards were doing their job mechanically, without paying much attention. Now and then they would examine a bag or reach into a pocket if something aroused their suspicions, but their efficiency was limited by the fact that each of them had only one arm. At first, I thought they must be casualties of the recent war of destruction. I selected out an old man who was riding on a donkey, and tried to slip into the town with him, half-hidden by the animal, but it didn't work:
I felt the edge of a blade upon my neck. The guard who had stopped me was about 50 years old. His left eye was twice as big as the right, and he had a wooden leg. He limped with me to a nearby guardroom. I noticed a big drum and trumpet near the entrance, apparently for summoning help in emergencies. How could such primitive equipment exist alongside the holorays of the Curtain? Had they lost the expertise which had produced the Curtain so soon?
The guard shoved me forwards. I tried to limp the way he did, hoping to attract sympathy by the ploy -- and also to conceal from him the fact that I could run away any time I wanted. When we entered the guardroom he locked the door through which we had come and indicated that I should wait. His manner wasn't at all menacing. He behaved like someone who was thoroughly bored by his job. He slowly detached his armour, having first laid down his sword and shield in a corner. Then he opened another door, which led to an inner room.
The room was all white. Lots of sharp instruments hung on the walls, some of which were utterly unfamiliar to me. I felt someone touch my neck, tenderly, on the same spot where the blade had touched me before. I had to turn around. Evidently there was a tiny would on my neck, and the woman who had touched me was a nurse. She was horrible; I had never seen anyone so horrible in my entire life. I suppressed a cry of disgust.
She laughed at me, or so it seemed. She showed her coloured teeth. Her nose reminded me of a malformed pear. I couldn't see her eyes because they were covered by untidy, oily strands of hair. Her left cheek was swollen, as if she had just returned from the dentist. I was so shocked by her appearance that I couldn't help trying to move away, but she touched me again, this time more assertively. Her left hand was very strong indeed. Then I felt her squeezing my hip, painfully. Like everyone else, she seemed to have no right arm. She was dressed in a thin cloak without sleeves, which fell sheer from her shoulders. Her face reminded me of a hollowed-out beetroot of the kind with which we used to frighten one another in the days of my youth, placing a burning candle inside to illuminate the eye-holes. Her eyes seemed to be burning when I finally brought myself to look into them, as if she had a fever.
She attended to my wound with professional efficiency. When she had applied liniment to it I felt that it had instantly begun healing, as if by some miracle. Then she showed me to a wooden couch, which stood beneath the window beside an old-fashioned cupboard. She began to undress me. She was quite disinterested, as if she were merely doing her daily duty. She executed the task skilfully. Now it was her turn to suppress a cry; when she removed my trousers she saw that I had underpants on, and for some reason this angered her. She tore them down with a single movement, as if wearing them were something indecent and abominable, threw them in the wastebin, and then began to explore my genitals with her hand.
Naturally enough, I tried to cover myself with both my own hands, like a shy boy, but this angered her all the more, and she pushed me down on the couch like a sack of potatoes. She sat on me, and pulled her cloak up about her waist. She was naked underneath. I recalled to mind the old argument about the possibility of women raping men; she proved very easily that such a thing is indeed possible. I was already aroused when she began to touch me, perhaps because of my long sexual abstinence -- or perhaps because her horrible appearance somehow excited me? Her beetroot face was squarely in front of mine and this proved too much for me. My orgasm came swiftly.
Afterwards, she climbed down. I tried to rise, in order to follow her, but I couldn't move. Somehow, while we had intercourse, she had secured me with ropes intended for that purpose to the wooden legs of the couch. I remained where I was, naked and spread-eagled.
When I had been alone in the room for some time I began to feel thirsty. Eventually the woman came back, with a jar of hot liquid in her hand. The crippled guard was beside her, he was wearing an apron of some heavy material and was carrying some of the sharp instruments I had seen on the wall of the other room. He threw these into the air one by one and caught them again, like a juggler. He pointed with his chin to my right shoulder. The female rapist began to anoint the place he indicated with the liquid from her jar. It smelt abominable.
"Stop!" I shouted as loudly as I could. "I won't be mutilated. I don't want that. Stop!"
They seemed surprised.
"Don't worry," said my captor. "This is your chance. We know what we're doing. It won't take long." He sounded as if he was doing me a favour.
While he was speaking he opened the door of a nearby cupboard. Neatly arrayed therein was a collection of right arms: long ones and short ones, fat ones and thin ones, with fingers clenched into fists or spread out as if trying to reach for safety.
I succeeded in liberating my own right hand from the knot which held it. I was ready for a fight. I was determined not to succumb so easily to him as I had to his horrible woman partner. I also contrived to free one of my feet. They hadn't secured me as safely as they had intended -- or had my beetroot-faced lover meant me to get free?
"You're under no compulsion to become normal," she said, in a wounded tone -- as if I'd just declined to accept a precious gift.
"Mind you, we don't tolerate monsters in our towns!" said the surgeon solemnly. He stressed the word monsters. "You'll have to leave us immediately, and go back wherever you came from."
His voice sounded odd, as though he were a ventriloquist's dummy. He seemed to have lost all interest in me now that I had shown my true colours, and he returned to the other room, taking his instruments with him.
The woman disappeared into yet another room. I decided that I might need her again, and that I ought to say goodbye to her. I opened the door. It was small, no more than a closet. She was just changing her clothes, and had taken off her cloak. I saw her completely naked for the first time, and I realised that she did have a right arm, tightly bound to her torso. It was as white as an albino's arm, seemingly empty of blood. Evidently she felt it necessary to keep the arm perpetually concealed, just as our modest girls always covered their wombs, even on naturist beaches, with some kind of slip. She was immediately aware of what I had seen, and instantly became angry.
"Out! Get out!"
She tried to shut the door with her left hand and turned her backside to me in the meantime. She was quite beautiful when observed from that angle. I fled, but while I was on my way back to rejoin my companions I could think of nothing but her. Why did she behave as she did? Had they all maimed themselves as she had? If so, why?
While I was gone my friends had built a small encampment near the gates to the city. It had been easy enough; nobody seemed to care. They offered to send someone else next time instead of me, but everyone understood that this was a mere formality. I drank some of the water we had brought with us, bathed, and was soon ready to start out again. While I was returning to the camp I had observed several breaches in the city wall which were left entirely unguarded and so it was easy enough to return without going through the gate. It was abundantly clear that I was the best person to continue gathering information. After all, I had already an acquaintance in town: a girl-friend, for want of a better description.
I tried to remain unnoticed as I passed through the streets, concealing my right arm as best I could. Everybody about me was one-armed and further maimed to a greater or lesser degree. But nobody seemed to notice me. They had a curious, dreamlike appearance, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. I did not have to wait long. My beetroot-faced lover ran out of her amputation workshop before dawn, her tour of duty evidently concluded. She was carrying a basket which contained fruit and wheat. I tried to stop her and speak to her but she, like all the rest, didn't seem to notice me. She ran away.
"I won't tell anybody about your right hand," I assured her, trying to calm her anxiety. "You needn't be ashamed. Back home, we're ashamed of our genitals in exactly the same way -- or we used to be. Things will change here, too."
Her response was to increase her speed. I had to run after her. I was afraid someone would be suspicious. The streets of this town were like medieval alleyways, narrow and wet, full of nasty mud. I lost her when she disappeared without warning into a nearby house. It had two storeys, and was protected by heavy gates. The gates were shut in my face with a loud clang.
I decided to keep the house under observation for a time. While I watched, a window above my head was illuminated. I wondered whether she was changing her clothes, or liberating her colourless right hand from its prison. There was a balcony in front of the window, only several metres away from me. Should I climb up, like Romeo, to see my beetroot Juliet? I couldn't make up my mind, and while I hesitated I fell into the hands of another patrolling guardsman.
I thought he was going to arrest me for a second time and bring me to another amputation room. This one was missing a leg, and he had no teeth. He couldn't see my right arm, but he bellowed something incomprehensible, pointing with his chin to a public house across the street from the home of my woman-friend. Apparently, he couldn't understand what I was doing on the street, when the public house was so close.
When I entered the place, though, I thought that I had made a mistake about its nature. It seemed to me that it had the air of a waiting-room or a church -- some place, at any rate, where people expect changes, sensations, even miracles. I went through the door at the same time as two female dwarfs. The first one had only one breast, while the second was hunchbacked, thus having protuberances both front and back. They immediately joined a queue. People were standing one behind the other in a row, like sardines in a tin. They were waiting to get to the bar in front of them, making progress one step at a time -- but they were very slow steps indeed. At the bar, everyone received a pinch of white powder. They all swallowed it immediately, then ran like mad to rejoin the end of the queue, to wait their turn to receive yet another pinch. In the meantime, they had sexual intercourse: all of them!
The line consisted almost exclusively of pairs, most of them heterosexual, although there were a few homosexual couples, both male and female. They had little difficulty achieving congress, because the cloaks they were wearing posed no obstacle at all. Their cohabitations seemed to be a way of whiling away the time as they waited for their doses of the drug. The positions which they adopted were various, but no one -- or very few, at any rate -- bothered to lie down to assume the missionary position; mostly they coupled animal-fashion, while standing up. The lazy, the old and the fat, who were few in number, simply masturbated one another while they stood in line, inching forward step by step. I had never seen such an exhibition of exotic genitalia in my entire life -- and such a scarcity of hands! There were women with rabbit-like, bear-like and elephant-like vaginas, men with penises in the shape of cylinders, pendulums, spears and hammers. They had sex quite promiscuously, as though it were the most natural and commonplace way to behave in a public house.
I, of course, had to flee again; that became necessary as soon as the first lady dwarf let hen hand wander around my backside and tried to locate my penis. I knew that she too would be appalled by my underpants, which I had put on again, idiot that I am, as soon as I returned to the camp. I knew that she would recognise me as a foreigner immediately. Luckily, she let me go and I ran to the toilets. I threw the underpants away as soon as I could. I also threw my pants in the corner, and returned wearing only my shirt, whose tails covered my waist in the old baby-doll style. Nobody noticed. The lady dwarf had gained two steps during my disappearance, and was now busily attending to a newcomer. I decided to get out, and left the room, followed by the puzzled glances of people who couldn't understand that I would so readily forsake what everyone in town treasured so highly. I never discovered what effect the drug had.
After this, it was obvious that I couldn't remain on the street alone for long. Clearly, I had to climb that balcony to reach my "beloved," as is customary in every love story penned since classical times. I was successful; it wasn't very high.
She sat behind the window, weeping quiet tears.
"I knew that you would come..."
She was quick to embrace me -- but I started back reflexively. She was so very beautiful, now!
She started to weep again.
"Don't be surprised," she said. "yes, I'm a monster like you. All the rest is mere illusion..."
She showed me the pear-stone, by which means she had transformed one nostril of her beautiful nose into something vaguely resembling an elephant's trunk, and the wig of dirty hair, whose strands she had dangled before her beautiful green eyes, and the pieces of charcoal which she used to draw artificial wrinkles on her face.
"I have to pretend to be normal. That's why I hide my arm, too."
There was another fruit-stone, which she carried in her mouth in order to deform her cheek and distort her speech.
I tried to clam her down. I touched her gently. She aroused me now much more than when she had raped me at the beginning. I wanted to kiss her for the first time. She didn't seem to understand. Perhaps, I thought, she doesn't know what a kiss is. Perhaps they only have rough sex here.
Suddenly, the whole room was brightly lit. In the doorway stood a rather ordinary man, devoid of expression. His right arm had been amputated, but the wound of his shoulder was not yet properly healed.
"My husband," she whispered, without moving a muscle.
"Dinner's ready downstairs!" announced the man, a little too loudly. He pretended not to see me. Perhaps he doesn't care, I thought, that I was just going to kiss his wife, before his very eyes.
We went down the stairs. Almost every other tread was loose. It was risky using them. The doors downstairs couldn't be properly closed, and the table was shaky. Only the dishes were in good order. Were those the last traces of old times? But they bore only wheat-grains and lettuce-leaves. We had to chew the grains. Perhaps it was healthy enough, but not very tasty. There were two more people sitting at the table: a decrepit couple wearing dark glasses. They didn't dare to speak. They were obviously parents.
"You can stay with us," said the husband, after chewing for a while, as though he had decided to recognise me as a colleague, "but only tonight. Tomorrow you'll have to leave. I don't like problems."
His spoon was broken, and he had to pick up food with his fingers.
Later, he took me down into the cellar, perhaps to separate me from his wife. Here, nothing worked at all. It was a store-room full of ruined things, and even though there were two beds in the room I had to sleep on the floor. I wondered why they never repaired anything. Many of the objects around me could have been repaired without much effort. I tried to fix one of the beds, and then turned my attention to the door. While I was working on the door it opened. There she stood, all in white, like an angel. She had washed herself, and put on some perfume. Now she was like one of the models from back home.
She sat beside me, and spoke in a dogged tone. "I want you! I want to live with you. I intend to put a stop to this masquerade. I'd rather live underground, as a monster among monsters, the way I was born, than let others mutilate me or hide my true appearance all the time."
As she spoke she raised both of her hands, showing me the right one with some pride. The arm wasn't wholly disabled after all. She had even put some make-up on it.
"But I don't understand!" I complained. "We all have two hands where I come from. The vast majority of people use their right one to produce things, fix and repair them. Life is easier with them, you know. The furniture in this room could easily be repaired, if only the workman had two hands."
"Nobody here has a second arm on his right side," she told me. "When such a monster is born, the arm has to be amputated, as we offered to do for you. If not, the defect has to be hidden, like mine. Otherwise, you have to go to live with the other malformed beings, under the ground."
She showed me a trap-door in the middle of the cellar floor.
"Under terrible conditions," she added, with a shiver. At the same time she tried with both of her hands to fix a chair in front of her. The arm rest had only to be set back in place. She succeeded instantly. I had to applaud her.
"Life isn't terrible when you have both hands -- it's easier!" I said triumphantly.
I wanted to show her more of what my right hand was good for, but at that moment her husband intruded again. This time, he was furious. The sight of us repairing the chair made him very angry -- in stark contrast to the sight of us making love earlier that evening.
"You bitch! You faithless bitch!" he cried, and started to kick her. "You monster, you crazy monster! You'll destroy yourself and all of us!"
She retreated before him, silent again. I wanted to show her that you can fight with both hands, but he was armed. In his left hand he held a kind of gun, which he fired.
I felt nothing but a very slight impact, but I lost consciousness. My last mental impression was the puzzling revelation that he was not at all jealous in a sexual sense, but deeply resentful of our collaborative endeavour.
When I awoke again they were both gone. I looked at the trap-door she had pointed out to me. Who had she said was living underground? Beings similar to me? Shouldn't I try to contact them? But first I had to find her, to save her from her primitive husband, although I had no idea where he might have taken her.
Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. All thought of further exploration had been driven out of my head. Compared to my feelings for the woman, all else had become unimportant. I was in love, for the first time.
I ran upstairs. Both parents were sitting at the table, quite motionless, as they had the day before. But they had had a shock, and now they both started to speak at the same time, clamourosly. The woman was apparently their daughter; the husband was no husband a all; he was a foreigner, who had been operated on several weeks before, in the same amputation room from which I had escaped. He had fallen in love with their daughter and had been living here ever since. But he was afraid all the time, obeying the rules scrupulously because he didn't want to lose the privileges he had gained by coming here. Life in the plains from which he had come must be frightful indeed; that was the reason, they said, why he took the rules so seriously.
"What rules?" I wanted to know.
There was a rule, apparently, that everyone who simply hid his or her right hand had to be brought to the Castle for further treatment. Anyone sheltering such a monster was punishable by law, and could also be exiled from town. It was simple enough to find the Castle, they told me. It was in the main square.
I found a desolate square in the centre of the town, rectangular in shape. The old-fashioned buildings which lined it seemed to be derelict, with the sole exception of the castle, which had not quite fallen into ruins. The castle was evidently inhabited: two soldiers with swords and shields stood in front of the baroque gate. Each of them had only one hand: the left.
"You can't come through if you don't know the password," one of them told me, while the other one extended his sword to touch my neck on the usual spot. Evidently, they were trained to do that.
"You can't see your beloved just now," continued the man who had spoken. "But the boss would like to see you. Follow me."
"The boss" turned out to be the guardsman I had first encountered at the gate of the city, who had been so regretful at the failure of his attempt at vivisection. He stared at me with his right eye, which was now twice as big as his left, and moved the fingers of his left hand as though he were scratching the skin of his non-existent right forearm.
"I would never have let you enter the town if I had foreseen the effect it would have on poor Roobee," he said. Evidently this was the name of my beloved, who had reminded me of a beetroot when I first met her. "But she will be cured now she is here, you have my word for that. And you shall have the privilege of spending a few moments with the Emperor. He wants to speak to you."
He led me out of his room and into the depths of the castle. We passed through long corridors, where the officers and clerks of the castle were stationed according to their ranks and degrees of infirmity. The ground floor was staffed by the one-legged and the lightly maimed, the first floor by those without both legs or with head injuries, while men with artificial limbs who supported themselves on crutches were assembled under the roof. There, on high, the throne-room of the Emperor was placed. I was sent in to confront him.
"We know that you and your companions have come to us as ambassadors," said the Emperor. "We know that you represent species akin to ours which are scattered throughout the galaxy -- intelligent species."
The Emperor paused before continuing, and groaned. He was slumped on his neglected throne, a white-haired, dirty-faced ancient with only one hand, trembling as if in the throes of Parkinson's disease.
"But that's your problem," he went on. "We don't need to make contact, because we're more intelligent than you are. We have passed beyond the stage of technical civilisation, of which space is merely the last symptom. We, fortunately, have transcended all the horrors of the brain's left hemisphere. All your troubles, did you but know it, are created by work, and by your abominable habit of using your right hands to do it. We, by contrast, have elected to cultivate our left hands and the right hemispheres of our brains. By this means we have solved all our ecological problems and avoided petty conflicts. We live nowadays in a peaceful, calm and truly beautiful world. This is the message we wish you to take back with you. You can go now. You can all go home."
In the corridor the guardsman was waiting. "You didn't believe him, I hope?" he said, winking at me with his bigger eye. "All that stuff about hemispheres is just humbug and propaganda."
All at once he began to seem more human. He led me away to a quiet corner, and started to whisper like a conspirator. "I know, you see, because I'm the minister of the interior. I serve as a guard now and again just to be able to keep an eye on my subordinates. I know everything about everything -- even you. I know your name, your age and your address. I even know when your mother died. Our civilisation was not developed according to the dictates of the physiology of the brain, but because of our desire to attain equality. After the last big war huge numbers of people had been maimed in one way or other. As chance would have it, very many of them had lost their right arms -- the arms with which they had been forced to fight. For this reason the idea became common that it was desirable and just for everyone to have only one hand. There have been other factions, of course: people whose faces were ruined by napalm wanted everyone to have a mutilated face, people whose genitals were torn off by mines desired to have every man castrated. There have been parties advocating one-breasted women, and organisations of toothless men -- these consisting, of course, of those who sacrificed their teeth to the torturers. There were many roads to equality, you see, and uniformity wears many faces. But the one-handed form prevailed here, as was only natural. We became a nation of one-armed individuals, hungry and maimed, dirty and ugly. Thus our kingdom evolved, and so it continues. We can afford to take a liberal attitude to sex, and to drugs, while we reproduce our posterity, cloning our deformity. We have justice and we have equality, without initiative and without strife. This is the real message you may deliver to your superiors. But be careful! You're being followed by my most able agents. Run away now..."
"But what will happen to her?" I wasn't prepared to give her up.
"To Beetroot?" He knew, somehow, the name by which I called her. Even that was known to him. "She belongs here. They will cure her. She will ask, of her free will to have her right arm amputated. I'll put it in my collection. There's no problem. Now run along, for the sake of your own safety." He stopped whispering and shouted the last order, as two crippled guardsmen appeared in the corridor.
I went away unhurriedly. I was followed by two shadows, as he had predicted. Why had he told me all this? Did he want to take revenge upon his own profession? Or was his only aim to sever my relationship with Beetroot?
I tried to make my way to the prison which had to be somewhere downstairs, but my shadows were too quick off the mark. A guardsman appeared before me. I had indeed to run, then. But I didn't intend to desert her!
That would hardly have been an appropriate ending to my love story.
I returned to her parents. After some persuasion they revealed how the trap door in their cellar could be opened. I hoped to find allies in the world below.
The way down into the underworld was very long. The finger-like hill on which the town of invalids was situated was high and steep; I soon realised that this was because it was built out of many strata of waste.
There was a layer of household garbage, a layer of liquid waste and spent oils, a layer of the wrecks of cars and tools, and a layer of tines and containers. Only after clambering for a long time through increasingly narrow passages did I reach the last of the subterranean strata, which must have lain deep beneath the polluted plain. There it was that the people of the underworld lived.
Like frightened savages, clad in old-fashioned clothing that reminded me of home, which they had obviously inherited from earlier times when things were normal, they approached me. They were frightened but beautiful; this was an underworld of Belmondos and Lollobrigidas. Nicholsons and Bardots. They thought that I only wanted to hide among them, like everyone who had ever dared to enter their underground habitat before.
"Not at all!" I told them. "I have come to bring you a very important message. You need to hear this message more than my own people at home: You are not monsters! You are beautiful! That is my message. The monsters are those who live up above. You have more skill and craft than they do, because you each have two hands at your disposal. You can emerge from here and occupy the town at your leisure. There is a layer of discarded weapons somewhere up above, and they are not all as rotten as they seem. Anyway, you can repair them. Come, take them in your hands and follow me!"
In the afternoon of that same day we threw the living corpse of the Emperor out of the window, to break upon the stones. The one-eyed minister of the interior committed suicide. Beetroot's husband and a few diehards tried to defend the gateway to the prison from our beautiful mob, but disappeared beneath the vengeful tide. I won through to my beloved.
"I can't come away with you," she said, dreamily.
It was apparent that they had brainwashed her. She spouted a load of nonsense about the hemispheres of the human brain, and why the right one is more important for the cultivation of the arts; she was now perfectly prepared to give up her right arm.
"Nonsense!" I said. "Look around you..."
All the nurses and attendants in the ward where she was confined were ugly monsters.
"They are jealous of you! They simply cannot stand the fact that you are more beautiful than they. Because of beauty and talent there will never be equality between us. We are all different from one another, all talented in our various ways. Can't you understand that?"
I had to support her while I dragged her outside. I wanted to show her the army of Liberation, and the future which beckoned.
Outside, a Lollobrigida had already begun fighting with a Bardot; she had grabbed a fistful of blonde hair and was trying hard to scratch her eyes out. A Nicholson decided to help her, but he was prevented from so doing by a Belmondo. A Garbo and a Leigh appeared around a corner, half-naked and covered in blood. A Weismuller was roaring like Tarzan, and laying into everyone around him.
All my beautiful people had started to fight. At first it was only townspeople, the cripples and the invalids, who felt the force of their wrath -- but soon, bathed by the light of the sun of freedom, which shone proudly now above the planet, everyone was fighting his neighbour.
Blood ran in the streets of the town again.
Both of Beetroot's parents were killed. She consented at last to flee with me, heading for the gate of the town. We must reach the camp which my companions have built; it is our only hope.
If they try to stop us, I shall fight too. I shall defend her -- if necessary, to the death.
(from Interzone, December 1993, translated by J. Nesvadba with assistance from Brian Stableford)