My name is George Winston, but most people who know me simply call me "the Professor". This is not because of my job, I can assure you, for there were, in those times, no such thing as schools. Education was forbidden. But some of us remembered a time before this had been true, before the Party came to power. That had been when I was still quite young, but at least I had learned to read and write. Books, of course, are also illegal now, but you can occasionally find one on the black market. They haven't all been destroyed. Of course, there are still any number of people my age or older who could read, if there was anything to read, so that's not how I came by my nickname. People call me that because I like to think. And when it's safe, I sometimes like to share my musings with others, even if they don't take what I say seriously. And perhaps they're right. I have no way of knowing how near or far my speculations come to hitting upon truth. As I said, my education was cut short at an early age. But it's because I like to think that I don't accept everything the Party says as truth, the way the younger generations do. And so, I eventually became a part of the Resistance.
It was purely by chance that the Herb found her way to my cell rather than one of the others, for mine was the closest to the first landing site of the Herbert invasion. (When I say "my cell," I don't mean to say I was its leader. I was but one of its members.) The Herb in question was named Orwell; no other name, for Herbert each have only one name, for reasons I need not go into. She was a member of an organization much like the Resistance, on Mars- or rather, Mercury, as they ironically happened to call their planet, in their language. (And before you ask, no, they don't call our Mercury "Mars", or any such thing.) I had often speculated as to what aliens might look like, if indeed there were life on other worlds. It never really occurred to me that there was much chance of their closely resembling humans, but in fact Herbert are only distinguishable from humans by the fact that they have only four fingers instead of five on each hand- that is, three fingers and a thumb. Anyway, Orwell told all of us in my cell about the situation on "Mercury." Unlike on Earth, education flourished, and was free to all Herbert. In fact it was mandatory. The problem, she said, was that what was taught was not the truth. Some things, of course, couldn't be faked; math was math, for example. But any misinformation that could be disseminated to the masses, was. And it had been that way since long before Orwell had been born. She knew not how long; it could have been anywhere from a few generations to millennia, since the Herbert version of the Party had taken complete control of her world. But there were still some free thinkers among her people who managed to spot inconsistencies and improbabilities among the things that were taught in their schools, which led them to seek the truth. Sadly, they hadn't had much luck with that. But they continued to hope that someday they might find some hidden trove of real history. Meanwhile, she had been sent as a secret agent by her Resistance to meet with ours, in the hopes of joining forces against both our worlds' oppressive regimes.
Of course, her people knew much about our world, having studied it from afar for centuries. Orwell knew, for instance, exactly when and how the Party came to power on Earth, and that there was a Resistance. Her own government had no interest in the conflict between the Party and the Resistance; to them, all of humanity was a single society that must be conquered and annexed in the name of their own Party. No doubt once they succeeded, they would establish schools here on Earth, to teach their own version of their history as well as a new version of our own history. I, personally, looked forward to the establishment of schools here on Earth, or I should say the re-establishment thereof. But of course I wanted them to teach the truth, rather than the lies of either the Party or the Herbert. In any case, my cell began spreading word of what we'd learned to other cells in the Resistance, and it was quickly agreed that we would, indeed, join forces with Mercury's resistance, which was called in their language "Onare," which roughly translated to "Theater". I thought at first that that was an odd name, but Orwell said it was because they all had to play the roles of compliant citizens, as unquestioning of what they were taught as were most people on Earth.
As it turned out, she was an actor not just in Onare, but as her regular job. (She was not part of the invasion force, but had been secreted aboard one of their ships by other Onare agents.) I found myself rather jealous that her world even had theater (both live and filmed), for that was another thing that was banned on Earth. I mean, unless you want to count the Party's ubiquitous propaganda films, which I certainly did not. Orwell herself was less enthusiastic about her profession, as many of the plays and films that were allowed in her society were, if not overt propaganda, at least part of the general misinformation about Mars's history. Not all the plays or films she acted in were falsified (beyond being fiction), since they were about normal people living normal lives in their society as it exists today. But historical dramas, for example, were of necessity complete fabrications of reality.
"God," she said, "don't get me started on historical dramas."
"Wait, you have a concept of God?" I asked.
"What? Oh... sorry, no. I forgot the meaning of that word in your language. In ours, 'god' is simply an expletive, which I guess would be most nearly translated as 'I can't even.' But, you know, stronger. But what about you? I know all religion was outlawed by the Party, but do you believe in any god?"
"I don't particularly believe or disbelieve. Well, to be more precise, I find it highly unlikely that any being as powerful as a god, whether benevolent or self-centered, would allow worship of them to just be abolished like that. I would expect them to intervene in what's become of the world, and they haven't. So either they don't exist, or they simply don't care about humanity one way or the other."
She nodded, a bit of body language our races have in common- or I should say our current societies, for I've read that before the Party's influence over the Earth became absolute, nodding didn't mean the same thing in all of our world's various societies. "Sounds reasonable. I'm afraid I have no idea if Herbert ever worshipped any god or gods, but we certainly haven't since our current government came to power. Although some of our stories do involve fantastical beings, none of them are godlike, and again, I have no idea if anyone ever believed they were anything more than myths."
"I'm a fan of mythology, myself. Fantasy of all kinds, really. I once read a book of myths from around the world, when I was quite young. Its memory has always stuck with me, even though the book itself was long ago disposed of. Somehow, I find it easier to imagine a completely fantastic world than a more realistic world where people are truly free, a world where the Party doesn't exist."
"Well, hopefully we can change that for both our people."
"Yes. Still, I think I'd like to see some of your world's films, especially if you're in them. Fantasy or otherwise." I grinned. "Maybe even historical dramas."
She grunted, and was about to say something in reply, but our conversation was cut short by the arrival of a group of Onarert we were to guide to the next Resistance cell. Since it would involve moving out in the open, talk of the differences between our worlds was impossible, for the Herbert were meant to pass for humans as we traveled. Still, Orwell and I would have many such conversations throughout our time working together. They were undoubtedly the most interesting conversations I've ever had in my life; a fact which might sound like an exaggeration to some, but considering the very limited nature of conversation I've ever had the chance to have with my fellow humans, should not be surprising. I soon came to consider her a good friend, in addition to being an ally in our shared war.
Of course, the Herbert's weaponry and transports were far superior to that of humanity, but we had the home field advantage, so to speak. We already controlled the land, and we had strength of numbers on our side. We- humans, I mean; the Party- even managed to capture a few of their fighting machines, and turn them against the Herbert. But while we held more ground than we lost, we did lose some, and at a steady rate. Advances were made by both armies (and aerial forces), but one thing we could never do was get anywhere near their landing sites. Orwell said that was because they were determined not to let humans capture a single one of their ships, for fear that we might eventually bring the fight to Mercury itself. Meanwhile, as many of their troops as we defeated, they kept sending more. Thus the war raged on for nearly two years, with no end in sight.
Then one day, it happened. Orwell and I were caught by the Party's intelligence agents. Naturally, they'd started having suspicions before very long that the Onare were working with the Resistance, and some of the Terran films we released to the public confirmed it. So they'd been trying for quite some time to capture any rebel agents they could, and so far as I know, we were their first success. They kept us separated, so I had no idea how Orwell was being treated, but I assume her treatment was much the same as my own. Which is to say... not entirely unpleasant. Only mostly unpleasant, and the entirety of that was psychological in nature. There was no physical torture, for we possessed no information that they didn't already have. (Or at least I didn't; I suppose it's quite possible that Orwell knew details about her side that she'd had no reason to specifically share with the Resistance.) As for me, all they really wanted to do was give me an absolute sense that there was no way my side could ever hope to win. Not against the Party, and not against the Herbert.
My "keeper" was a man who identified himself as Miles Weybridge. "You're lucky," he said to me when we first met, "not to have been captured before the war, or soon after it started. There was a time we would have used all the tools at our disposal to drag information out of you. And your people are lucky that, at least for the time being, we don't particularly care about them, as we once did. At this point, we could move in and crush you all, or almost all. I suppose there might yet be a few cells we don't know about, and a few members of those we do might manage to scatter to the wind, if we made an assault. I can assure you, though, we wouldn't be picking off cells one by one. We'd move against every one of them simultaneously, so your people would have no chance to warn other cells, nor to find refuge with them."
"So why even bother capturing us?"
Weybridge smiled wryly. "Us? I take it you refer to Orwell. I'd hardly consider one of them to be a friend, as you no doubt do. They, and I mean every single Martian, are more unlike us than you might imagine. Despite the ideological differences between you and I, we are more alike than you and the Martian rebel faction with which you've been working. Don't worry, though; we've less interest in her than we have in you. There's nothing she could tell us about her people, at least not to give us any sort of tactical advantage. After all, she's only an actor, and obviously knows nothing of the Martians' plans, let alone how to defeat them. But to answer your question: I'll admit, it is sheer pettiness, on our part."
"We intend to make you suffer by watching scenes of battle. The suffering is the only point; it serves no greater purpose than to amuse us. And don't think yourself important, we-"
He paused a moment, and grinned again. "Well, good. It's pure chance we captured you rather than any other agent of any cell of the Resistance. And any one of you would do equally as well for our amusement."
"If you know where we all are, why don't you capture us all? Or kill us all?"
"You people have always been but a minor thorn in our side, a mere annoyance. You never posed any semblance of a real threat, until the war started. Nevertheless, we would have been happy to be rid of you, once and for all. You did a better job of hiding, until you started helping the Martian rebels. Now you may do more harm than you used to, but it's still nothing compared to the harm done by the Martians. So, as long as the war goes on, we must focus our efforts on them. Once they're defeated, then we can make our move against the Resistance."
"Showing me that would certainly make me suffer, but the battle scenes you spoke of, what makes you think that would bother me? It will only be those loyal to the Party and the Mar- the Mercuriert government being killed. Both sides are my enemies. What makes you think I won't be the one to find amusement?"
"Because, Mr. Winston, you are a good man. A compassionate, an empathetic man. You won't see enemies dying, you will see people dying. And because you are friends with a Martian, you will see both sides as people. Most of whom you will believe are mere unwitting pawns of the systems you hate, not the systems themselves. People who have been duped into fighting against their own interests. People you've spent many years hoping to free from their oppression."
"And if I'm a good man, what does that make you?"
"A realist, and a member of the winning side. One who lives quite comfortably. I suppose you might say, a sociopath, as if such a label would bother me. Not being bothered by what I am is part of what makes me what I am."
I had no rebuttal for that last point, but I wasn't ready yet to resign. "Anyway, I was in battles. I've seen them up close and personal. And it was unpleasant, of course. Surely more unpleasant than watching them on a video screen."
"You might well think that. But you were only ever on the fringes of battle. You saw your small piece, and moreover, you were able to compartmentalize the killing. Each enemy you faced was less a person than a task to be completed. You either failed and died, or you succeeded and moved on to the next task. What we will show you is the totality of battle, and I think the scope will be more troubling to you than you can imagine. Especially if you see any rebel allies of yours getting killed, and knowing there's nothing you can do to help them. But don't worry, this is just one of several forms of psychological suffering we'll inflict upon you. I just thought I'd start by explaining that one, and leave the rest as surprises."
And over the next several weeks, I saw video recordings of many battles, and they did cause me to suffer, perhaps in more ways than even Weybridge imagined. The fact is, it hurt me more to witness the battles that humans lost than those that the Herbert lost. I hated myself for that, both because it exposed my own unwanted biases to me, and because it meant Weybridge was right: he and I were more alike than I could bear to admit. I began to be glad I wasn't allowed to see Orwell, because I didn't believe I could possibly face her, after learning this about myself. Or maybe that was part of the point, maybe Weybridge did fully expect me to feel this way. Just one of the 'surprises' he had spoken of... the rest of which I won't go into, here and now, because I cannot even bear to think of them in retrospect. Still, if Weybridge was trying to break me, he never quite succeeded in that. He certainly did get a great deal of amusement from my suffering, though.
I was surprised, to say the least, when one day a Herbert war machine crashed through the wall of the facility where I was imprisoned, and killed several Party members, including Weybridge. I was even more surprised when the canopy of the machine opened and there sat a grinning Julia. "Hello, George. Have you seen Orwell anywhere around here?" she asked.
It took me a few moments to recover my senses before I could respond, "I'm afraid not. I haven't seen her since we were captured. But what on Earth are you doing here?"
"Isn't it obvious? I'm here to rescue you both. Now hurry up, let's see if we can find her before the enemy can mobilize forces to stop us." I climbed into the cockpit of the machine, and sat down beside Julia. The canopy closed, and she began smashing through more walls, until finally she found Orwell, who joined us. We then beat a hasty retreat.
There was a heavy battle being waged not far from the building, and once we were out of harm's way, Julia let us go. She had to return to the battle before anyone realized she had strayed from her primary mission to help out a pair of captives of the Party, lest her own membership in the Onare be discovered. We thanked her, and in the chaos of battle were not pursued by Party agents. So, we made our way back to our Resistance cell, knowing full well that it was under constant Party observation, but also feeling assured that they wouldn't make a move against us at that time. Besides, we had nowhere else to go. We found few of our allies were in, at the moment, as most of them were out fighting against both the Party and the Herbert, in a battle that was uncomfortably close. The outer edges of the battle we'd just escaped from were little more than a mile away from our current location. And the partial destruction of a single Party detainment facility was hardly an indication that the Herbert were winning. On the contrary, both sides were doing nearly equal amounts of destruction not only against each other, but against civilians and civilian buildings and vehicles. We were both eager for the battle to end, and hopefully to see the safe return of our cell's leader, Orson Ogilvy, so that we might make a report to him about our time in captivity. Meanwhile, Orwell and I caught up with each other, telling of our respective experiences as prisoners. Hers was, as I suspected, much the same as my own.
"By the way," I said, "I'm sorry you didn't get to spend more time with Julia. I do hope she'll be alright."
"I'm sure she will. She's an excellent mecha pilot. But you're right, I also wish I could have more time with her. I expect she'll come for a visit, as soon as she gets a chance, though."
We fell silent after that, and I suddenly remembered the awkwardness I had expected to feel, the next time I saw Orwell, if indeed I ever did again. I'd forgotten my shame in all the excitement of being rescued, and I really was glad to see her alive and well. Of course I was. But now that the adrenaline was ebbing, the awkwardness hit me full force, and I found that I wanted to be alone.
Before I could think how to say that, one of the few members of our cell who wasn't out fighting, a friend of mine named Simon, came up to us and said, "Hey, by the way, happy Halloween. Can you believe it's been exactly two years since the invasion began?"
"I'd lost track of time. I knew it was coming up, but I didn't realize it was today. But I suppose it doesn't matter much. Another year with nothing to celebrate. Fear is far too real to be fun, these days."
"I've never quite understood the holiday, myself," said Orwell. "But it's my understanding that my people chose the date intentionally. Which of course meant setting out from Mercury well before then. I missed one of our own holidays while hiding on the ship, and without a Mercuriert calendar handy, I'm not sure quite when it will come again. Meanwhile, I'm surprised a society like yours even allows holidays."
"Well, they're certainly not like they were when I was a kid. And there are fewer of them." Once again I'd forgotten about my discomfort, and felt happy to be having a conversation with friends."
"So... what's this holiday of yours called," asked Simon.
"Smoglosa. I suppose if I were to translate it, it would be something like 'Skyfox Day'. Smogert are mythological creatures that resemble your foxes, but with wings, so I think 'skyfox' would be a good name for them. Anyway, i-+n the myths, skyfoxes were always playing tricks on both people and other animals. The holiday evolved from one myth, in which people decided to finally get back at a particularly deceitful skyfox by playing a trick of their own. It involved an entire village becoming actors, relying partially on a script a group of villagers had conceived, but mostly on improvisation. The whole story is quite too complicated to explain in its entirety, but the upshot is that the profession of acting was itself invented at that time, and after the people succeeded in tricking the skyfox, beating it at its own game, it was decided that acting might be something fun to do more often, though without the intent to deceive anyone. If the myth is to be believed, that is how the first theater came into being, and it was named after the skyfox, Onare. So as you can imagine, it's one of my favorite holidays. As to how we actually celebrate it, it's not so much about acting as about joking and pranking. Sometimes the pranks can be mean, but most people prefer to pull pranks that are all in good fun, and if the person being pranked ends up being amused, they may give some sort of reward to the prankster. It could be just a bit of money, or food- most often candy- or anything else, really. So in a way it's like your Halloween, but generally without costumes or any really scary elements. It's the idea of fear as fun that baffles me."
"Well," I said, "since you're not sure when it is, perhaps we could combine it with Halloween, and celebrate it today. Hmmm... I wonder, considering you have much longer years than we do, dates on Earth and Mercury obviously can't be the same. But they might occasionally match up, so sometimes Skyfox Day and Halloween might actually fall on the same day. You don't suppose that happens this year, do you?"
"That would be an astonishing coincidence, so I doubt it. I suppose it has been close to one Mercuriert year since the invasion began, and the holiday last fell before that, while we were in space, so we must be within a month or two of Smoglosa. But since I'm unsure of the exact date, I suppose we could celebrate it today." She sighed. "Except I'm not really in the mood for pranks."
"Oh well," said Simon. "At least I think we could scrounge up some candy. I definitely think we owe some to your friend for rescuing you. That was kind of like a prank on both the Party and the Herbert."
She smiled at him. "Thanks, I'm sure she'd appreciate that, though I'm not sure we'll get to see her again today."
"Oh, but you will," said Julia, striding into the place casual as you please. "Hadn't you noticed all the distant crashes and explosions stopped awhile ago? Now that it's over, I'm on leave for the day." She walked over to Orwell and shook her hand, which was as close as Herbert ever came to public displays of affection. It was, no doubt, more than Orwell and Julia would feel safe doing in the company of other Herbert.
"So who won?" I asked.
"Depends on how you look at it. Could call it a draw, since neither side ended up losing any territory. But I'd say we- that is, the Herbert- won, considering how much structural damage was done to human territory. At least I'm glad to see this place is still standing. Now, what's this about owing me candy?"
"They want to celebrate Smoglosa today," said Orwell with a grin.
Julia chuckled. "Oh, that is good.
"Why is that funny?" asked Simon.
"First, my candy, if you please."
He went to a cupboard and got out a box, from which he withdrew a handful of wrapped chocolates, and handed them to Julia.
"Thank you." She put most of the candy in her pocket, unwrapped one, and popped it in her mouth. "Mmm... I am so going to miss this stuff, on Mercury. Don't get me wrong, we have plenty of delicious candy in many varieties, but one thing we don't have is chocolate."
"On Mercury?" I asked, puzzled. "Does that mean you're going back soon?"
She nodded. "As of today, we have accomplished the goal of the first wave."
"First?" asked Simon. "Haven't there already been a ton of waves of invasion?"
"Not exactly," said Orwell. "Two and a half of your years ago, our fleet set up a base on your Moon. It would have been highly impractical to send wave after wave all the way from Mars to Earth when our respective orbits took our worlds far away from each other. So the little 'waves' that kept arriving were actually sent from the Moon. The second big wave won't come for at least another two years, probably longer."
This was more than I'd ever heard Orwell claim to know about her people's plans, and I began to grow nervous. "So what was the goal of the first wave?"
Julia answered that. "Twofold: to weaken the Party, and to strengthen the Resistance, until such time they were more evenly matched. Before we came, the Party could have easily destroyed you all, if they could have found your cells or learned of their membership. With the Resistance out of the way, they could focus their full strength against us. And we certainly didn't want that, given their overwhelming numbers."
"But now when we're gone," said Orwell, "you can fight against the Party in earnest, without the need to hide. Not only have you recruited more members and obtained more weapons, but the public is more open to your message."
"So... you're going home, too?" My apprehension gave way to disappointment; I'd miss my friend.
"Yes, I'm afraid I must, otherwise who knows how long I'd be stuck here. You do want me to see my home again, don't you?"
"Of course, it's just... I thought you were mostly unhappy there, living under such an oppressive government. And especially having to hide your relationship."
"Relationship?" asked Julia.
Orwell grinned. "Oh, didn't I mention it? I told them we were... lovers."
Julia burst out laughing. "Oh, wow. That's awesome." She handed one of her candies to Orwell. "Happy Smoglosa, indeed!"
Now I was completely perplexed. "What? You're not? Why would you say that, then?"
"To further ingratiate myself with you," said Orwell. "God, I can't believe your friends call you 'Professor.' It seems as much effort as I put into deceiving you, I dropped just as many hints about the truth. For fuck's sake, I told you I was an actor. You may never get to see one of my films, but at least you've spent two years watching me perform in person, and you never picked up on it. Do you remember the time you said you found it intriguing how many of the 'problems' on Earth and Mercury amounted to the same thing, even if taken from different angles? I almost broke character, I wanted so badly to laugh at your gullibility. I made things up about 'Onare' specifically to mirror the reasons you told me the Resistance was fighting against the Party."
"So... you're saying those problems don't actually exist on M- Mars?" I almost said 'Mercury,' but I was getting quite irritated, and wanted to strike back in some small way, by using our word for her world.
"The... situations... exist, but no one who matters considers them bad things."
"No one... but, my god, Orwell, what are you saying?"
She went to stand beside Julia, who had pulled out a Herbert plasma gun and pointed it at Simon and me. "I'm saying," replied Orwell, "there is no resistance on Mercury."
It didn't take long to realize the Martians' plan was for the Party and the Resistance to go on fighting each other until both sides were so weak that the second invasion would have little trouble taking over the Earth. They assumed our ideological differences were so intense that humans would have no choice but to continue waging war against each other, even knowing all the time that we were playing into the Martians' hands. And for a time, they were right. Each side detested everything the other stood for. But in the end, our destiny wasn't up to the Party or the Resistance, but to the people of Earth. And eventually, most of us refused to fight any longer. Our hatred for each other didn't abate, but a truce was finally declared. The world became a two-party system. It was rediscovered that in its early days, before world domination, the Party had called themselves 'socialists,' but they were actually fascists. They would have to change their name, but they wanted neither old label. We, too, had to change our name, and while we believed in many aspects of real socialism, we couldn't take that name because of its association with the Party. So, the Resistance became 'Progressives," and the Party became 'Traditionalists.' Elections were established, for the first time since the Party had taken power, decades ago. I'm sad to say that the people were evenly divided between which side they supported, a fact which I don't believe I'll ever fully understand. But at least we have a single government, with united military forces. The one thing that we all agree on is our hatred of the Martians.
And so, we wait. Life goes on, and we wait for their return, keeping especially alert whenever Earth and Mars draw near each other in their orbits around the Sun. As for myself, I'm not sure which I fear more, defeating the Martians or being defeated. Perhaps they will never come. Perhaps they will see that their plan failed, and dare not risk a second wave. Perhaps one day humanity's science will advance enough for us to go to them. I still feel sympathy for the Martians- the Herbert- who are more deeply oppressed by their own government than we on Earth ever were by the Party. Perhaps someday we can liberate them, or help them liberate themselves. But my fear is that, just as the Martians hoped to impose their system upon us, we would only impose our system upon them. And that would be almost as bad. But at least there is now some morsel of hope, for both our worlds, however tenuous and imperfect that hope may be.
Also, now we have books and films, again. So there's that.