Short story: Intervention at Quissirio Landing


Some just stood watching, looking out to sea, looking off into the sky, waiting, tracking the world as if something truly were about to happen and had just started to reveal itself.


For the first ten minutes or so, what the accretion engineer had to say was fascinating. Pila, his name was, and he was fresh down from Phobos, and the 40 or so other patrons on the terrace at Stenna’s were leaning in to catch the latest on the Moons Project. The mass-packing was long done, he assured us, nodding and giving take-it-from-me winks. It was all cosmetic now, what they were doing, had been for years. They would easily make the Commemoration Day deadline.

I was beginning to tune him out, though his words had us all glancing skywards nonetheless, hoping to catch a visual in the lustrous blue. Nothing yet, not at this latitude and time of day. But the Moons Project was one of the more dramatic terraforming initiatives for Mars, and one where we actually could see the miracles happening. What had once been twin racing lumps of pumice were now bright rounded globes, so large, so beautiful, and slowed right down, swinging along their changed orbits. You got what you paid for, and Mars now had rich blue skies and a pair of stately bone-white twins you could fall in love by.

But Pila kept talking, kept it going way too long, so that he started to sound like just one more end-of-contract mass-packer newly home and homeless, reminding everyone that the human crews had been sent down long ago. Ninety-eight per cent mechanised for the last two M-years at least, so the official stats had it (for those, like me, with the right clearance level), just a scattering of token “supervisors” left behind to ghost the nano-machines.

Nothing for me here, I decided, which was no surprise. The role of Intervention psychologist had been pretty much an honorary posting for five generations, something they kept doing because it had been part of the original grand design. I was glad it had gone so well, this particular aspect of it, reminding myself there was a time when it really had been a vital uncertainty, when things really could have gone wrong at the human level, the price for making a go of it in such a (once) different and (once very) difficult place.

But then Pila said something that changed everything.

“Hadn’t planned coming out here today, but something got to me. A lot of people feeling the same. Look down there.” He pointed to the other landings thrusting out like stone fingers along what would soon be a thriving commercial seafront. Gleaming waves rolled towards us across the pocket miracle of the First Sea. The smell of precisely tailored brine was strong on the breeze. Gulls cried as they soared overhead, looking for places to settle. “Everyone’s feeling it.”

The cashiered accretion engineer was right. The bars and café terraces all seemed to be well patronised today, crowded if you could call 2,000 or so inhabitants scattered along the western edge of the 1,900 hectares making up Port of Mars that.

Still, it was odd for a weekday. It made me glance out towards the railyards, looking for commotion, some sign of an event. But there were just the usual freight arrivals and departures there. Two big McDonald-Ares locomotives were humming where they stood, powering up to make their long-haul runs out to Terillian, Robinson and the famous B-towns: Bradbury in the south, Burroughs in the north. A third was already tiny with distance, leading its 40 boxcars off to Bracket in the Diablo Hills, out where the flourishing canals shimmered in the ever-freshening air and the great Ortac areoform engines continued to breathe us all towards heaven.

The airfield was having a low-traffic day as well, just three Chadwick airships out on the plat, a fourth on approach from the east.

So why the turn-out? Why today? Pre-Commemoration Day frenzy or something else?

“You’re the mind-guy, right? The government psychologist?”

I asked Pila. “What do you think brought everyone out today? What brought you out?” After all, this was my area, keeping an eye on human responses to the long slow terraforming, the Intervention (as it was never called anymore), seeing how the locals felt about their changed, Earth-style Mars. Only the past three of those five generations of settlers had actually lived this reality, seen the seas coming in so spectacularly, the skies turning, the moons being finalised.

People were buying him drinks so the accretion engineer made much of searching for an answer. “The moons have to be it, when you think about it. They said it would be getting the seas back, true water seas, but a world – any human world – needs a moon. Mars always had two, but they were wrong. Now we got ’em right.”

So why today? I could’ve pressed. They’ve looked like this for years. Why not last week, last month, last year, a decade ago? Why now?

“What do you think it is, doctor?” a woman in the crowd asked me, a very pretty woman, I noted, with a stab of alarm full of the drama and instant personal relevance that affects many of us at any age when given the attention of such a beauty.

She had the long legs, top-spec figure and lustrous, mahogany tan of an open-habitat bio-worker with income to spare, long dark hair gathered back in one of those new orichalk clasps, the greenest eyes.

“You’re the mind-guy, right? The government psychologist?”

“One of them,” I said, not relishing the attention, wary of the meerkat twitchiness of the crowd. Thanks to Pila, the people on the café terrace had realised they were all out here like this, yet weren’t sure why. It was occurring to them in their ones and twos that they might need an explanation, even someone to hold responsible if they couldn’t find one. I had to improvise.

“Hey,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s a very exciting time. Commemoration Day is less than a week away. Everyone knows we’ve met every deadline right on schedule. That’s impressive, given what was involved. Of course there’ll be this sort of excitement. We’ve done well. We should be proud. It’s party time!”

With each statement, I brought another handful on side, so that pretty soon the crowd was nodding, smiling and feeling good about themselves. Of course that explained it. Of course they should be proud.

The green-eyed woman had moved in closer, was smiling right by my elbow, and now spoke for my ears alone.

“Well handled. But what did you truly sense just then? Was there any danger?”

I hesitated, not quite flattering myself that she was interested in me for anything other than my professional answer. Being 75 and officially middle-aged still took some getting used to. “There was something,” I replied. “A throwback emotion. Quite possibly tribal. I mean, look where we are. Our race evolved on another world.”

“That’s your old Intervention protocols rearing their ugly head, isn’t it? Your training?” She wasn’t being sarcastic or disrespectful, just amiable, maybe a bit cheeky. She seemed genuinely curious too. Why were all these people out on the terraces and boulevards like this?

“Tokenism now,” I conceded. “There was a time when it was everything. Should we intervene at all? Should we terraform Mars or leave it au naturel? But there was no way we could leave it be. We needed the resources, new homes, our own face looking back at us, but someone had to make sure it was working for those involved in delivering it. No rejection symptoms.”

“Not much of a job these past decades.”

“Past century. The crisis never came. But it was a key part of the Intervention once. I’m Luke Crosshaul.”

“Lys Triganaur,” she replied. I work with the new bioforms out at High Weir. Just off-loaded our five latest neotypes. Don’t worry, no threat. They look like funny cows.”

“Then I can relax. But since you asked, I did sense an edge to whatever that was just now. Still can. Look at these people.”

“Some kind of collective recognition?”

That’s exactly how it seemed – as if people were recognising something but weren’t sure what. They were milling about, laughing and chattering excitedly for the most part, but as if they’d locked on to something. Some in those crowds had an edge of something else. They weren’t laughing and chatting with the others. They just stood watching, looking out to sea, looking off into the sky, waiting, tracking the world as if something truly were about to happen and had just started to reveal itself.

The odd mood of the day made the sight of these empty streets and quiet tenements more unsettling than ever.

She surprised me again. “It’s like an anxiety pulse has been triggered.”

It really was, and I turned to catch that green gaze watching me rather than the crowds.

“Now, unofficially,” she said, again making sure only I could hear. “What do you feel yourself?”

“Excuse me?”

“We’re here. We’re feeling it, whatever it is. One field worker to another, what are you getting? Alarm? Anger? Resentment? Panic?”

Such words! Such single-mindedness!

“Nothing so strong or certain, Lys. Just – well – an immanence. Something’s happening or going to happen. Not necessarily bad.”

“But unsettling?”

“Lys, you’re really pushing this.” For the first time it occurred to me that she might be a psychologist as well, one appointed to conduct end-stage debriefings with the remaining Intervention psych personnel on-planet.

She gave an easy smile. “You don’t find it unsettling then?”

“Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do. But you’re priming me a bit. It’s likely what I said. Just excitement, deep-seated and very infectious. We’re a relatively small community close to the end of one of the greatest efforts our race has ever undertaken. It’s been centuries. Of course there are going to be complex sociological responses.”

“But no danger. You’re not getting danger? No lemming factor?”

“No.” I said it more acerbically than I’d intended, and quickly regained composure. “Lemming factor? That’s a term I haven’t heard in years. How do you know it?”

She gave the tiniest hint of a shrug. “Science of crowds. Basic group dynamics. Meerkat behaviour. Sheep behaviour. Lemming behaviour. I work with the new herds, remember. Was there a danger factor?”

“Like I said, nothing bad. Not that I read. For you?”

“Not sure,” she said, studying the crowds again. “But it’s a new area for me.”

A Chadwick airship thrummed by overhead on its way out to Corvus. In the railyards, the Northwest-Belladonna express hooted and began pulling away for Chantillas, Shambleau Reach and the W-towns: Weinbaum and Wells on the shores of the Sea of Tharsis.

Lys actually grabbed my arm. “Do you have half an hour you can spare? There’s something I want you to see.”

“Of course.”

She kept hold of my arm as she led me clear of Stenna’s, releasing it only when we were at the bottom of the Gentian Steps and heading along the Corniche away from the centre of town. These were the finger quays, storage precincts and new residential blocks that would serve Port of Mars when it was twice its present size, though the odd mood of the day made the sight of these empty streets and quiet tenements more unsettling than ever.

"This is the Mars they wrote about. We were the ones giving it to our descendants, but they had helped plant the generational idea."

“Not much out here yet,” I said, because of that feeling, and because the absence of conversation after what had been said was suddenly disconcerting. “We still need people. Fifty years of rogue pandemics on Earth has really thrown out the immigration and settlement projections.”

Her reply was oddly rhapsodic. “No-one could have foreseen those vectors reappearing, mutating like that. But we’re still here. It’s all wonderful now.”

I deliberately did not ask how she meant the last comment, rather chose to take it in a way that kept it easy between us. “It is. The right mix of deserts, seas and canals. The right names.”

“Tell me about the names again?” She seemed glad for the change of subject. Perhaps as a life-scientist the idea of mutating plague strains bothered her.

“You’ll remember it from school. We seeded those in the earliest stages of the Intervention.” I allowed myself the We. “When the Mars Project went ahead, they soothed ethnic and religious sensibilities by bringing in a pre-existing familiarity horizon from the 20th and 21st Centuries: carefully non-provocative, non-political namings that reflected the spirit, mindset and décor of the enterprise – fiction and cinema entertainments that had already caught the global imagination. Not just scientists’ names any longer, but those of the popular entertainers who really gave us Mars in a meaningful way: Wells, Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Catherine Lucille Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson, a long and healthy list. Somehow that notion sat better than names from astronomy and old mythology.” I worked to keep it light. “Hey, who wants to live in a town named after a lesser cup-bearer of the god Zeus? Even those speaking Hindi and Mandarin knew the works of Bradbury and Robinson in translation. This is the Mars they wrote about. We were the ones giving it to our descendants, but they had helped plant the generational idea.”

“An acceptable tolerance level.”

Lys was doing it again, though this time being clinical instead of rhapsodic. I simply put it down to it being a sensitive area for her, allowed that we might be skirting her own professional secrets and occupational misgivings as much as mine.

“Indeed. By any means necessary. The thing is, we truly did see it as seeding the future. Making it viable. How you name things can do that, plant the ideas, lock in the concepts.”

“Make it comfortable and familiar, yes. It must have seemed important at the time.”

I was immediately defensive. “It still does.”

“They were good decisions.”

There was a definite touch of the conciliatory in her tone now, though it was more like she was deliberately shifting from one mode to another, tasting forms, testing them. That had to be it, shifting, testing, learning modes. Confirming them.

That or working to keep my attention, possibly distract me from thinking too intently about what we were doing. More than ever I was determined to see what she wanted and be on my way.

More than ever, too, I was keenly aware of how few people were about – a mother and her two daughters back along the Corniche flying a kite, a fisherman one jetty over trying his luck at landing one of the new pelagics.

The pandemics on Earth. The new plagues. She didn’t want me thinking about them.

“This is the place,” she said, as if tracking precisely where my thoughts had led. We had reached one of the more remote stone jetties. “What’s this one’s name again?”

“Quissirio Landing. From a story by an Australian SF writer long ago. What is it you want to show me?”

“It’s out at the end. Not far.”

“Lead on.”

We walked out along the stone pier, heading for the great terminal groyne where it fell away into the swells. No one fishing out here. No sightseers at all. The landing was just a long flat deck. There wasn’t even a sea wall yet to protect us from the spray. She stopped when we still had 200 metres to go.

By this time I was expecting anything – that she was obsessed, deranged, psychotic, that she wanted me to witness her suicide, that I was here to be victim in some pre-arranged mugging.

“Lys, what is it? I don’t see anything.”

“Please wait.”

“Lys?”

“Luke Crosshaul, can you wait?”

Then it was there: a crimpling, roiling, shimmering in the air at the end of the pier. That crimpling steadied, strengthened, splayed open in a wash of light, and people came striding through – tall, beautifully formed people, some dark-skinned, some red, some fair, but bejewelled and confident, men and women in elaborate fighting harnesses with long-swords slung across their backs, others wearing robes, silks and exotic gowns. Some were masked too, wonderfully, gloriously, and had figures like smoke and sparkling vapour; others were tall, astonishing, green-skinned creatures, bright-eyed and six-armed, grinning wildly to see where they were.

“We were seeding the future too,” Lys Triganaur said, watching them come. “Planting the ideas for the world we all wanted. Waiting our time.”

“You’re from the past!” I cried. “You lost your world and – ”

“Or never had it,” she said, mischievously. “From another place entirely. It doesn’t matter. But this was the world we dreamed of, tried for, the world we designed through you.”

“So there was an anxiety pulse?”

“Just a final test. It’s heartening. Your people truly have become acclimatised to wonders.”

Then the pandemics on Earth, I almost said, but suddenly didn’t want to know. Not then. Not yet. As Lys had put it, there was an acceptable tolerance level – at least for today.

She might have read that moment for what it was too, as those dazzling crowds came towards us, smiling, laughing, triumphant, many already raising their hands in greeting. “Luke, do you have any official duties on Commemoration Day?”

“Why? You’re an ambassador now as well as a psychologist among your people?”

“As close to both as we presently have. A princess, actually.”

“Oh? And your real name?”

Lys Triganaur laughed. “Luke Crosshaul, you should check those names of yours. I think you’ll find you know it already.”

Terry Dowling is one of Australia’s most respected, versatile and awarded writers of science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, and author of the internationally acclaimed Tom Rynosseros saga.
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