The phrase bounced around the halls like a child’s rubber ball, jumping from lips to lips. It hid in the presence of work, but emerged from the corners, creeping out like a playful cat.
For weeks, the topic dominated all idle conversation, speculations flying wildly back and forth. Just a month, half a month, a week, less, until the return of the gallant explorers and their tales of what lay beyond!
Astronomy, that noble pursuit of staring up into the night sky, exploded in popularity. Enterprising street vendors hawked cheap telescopes, selling out their stock in minutes. At night, the roofs were covered with people, all of them staring up into the twinkling blackness and searching for that bright spot of Luna, our sister planet, rushing back to greet us.
Not quite six months previously, the Expedition (the name always carried that capital letter, locked into place at its fore) had launched. Three men – Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and the financier of the Expedition, Tycho Brahe himself – had set off into that great unknown, determined to “plumb the mysteries of Luna and return, armed with a wealth of new knowledge.”
The Expedition garnered great publicity before the launch itself, and thousands gathered to watch as their airship, the Dauntless, lifted off and sailed up into a cloudless blue sky. Children screamed and ran in circles gaily, as their parents stared, spellbound, up into the sky as they watched the airship grow smaller and more distant.
And that night, thousands cheered across the city as they spotted the glow of the red flare that erupted on the dark face of a receding Luna – the sign that the explorers had landed successfully.
Now, the wait for the three great men to return was nearly over. Already, children wore paper masks of their faces, and the Queen herself had promised to knight each of the three upon their return (this raised considerable commotion, as Brahe hailed from Denmark). So many new babies were receiving the names of Francis, Walter, or Tycho that doctors were cautioning mothers to reconsider.
Of course, this wasn’t the first study of Luna. Twice a year, naturalists and philosophers, priests and students, all turned their telescopes skyward, watching as Luna swooped past, so close to Earth that their atmospheres kissed. Those roving eyes scoured the surface of the other planet, searching for signs of intelligent life.
So far, no evidence of others living on Luna had yet emerged, although the planet was covered in greenery, signs of flourishing plant life. Several years previously, a great hubbub broke out when a young student claimed to have spotted the straight lines of canals, dug by an alien civilization, but these claims were later refuted by more powerful telescopes, revealing that the “canals” were truly just canyons.
But now, now the answers would finally come. *Balloon day!* The return of the Dauntless, of Drake, Raleigh, and Brahe, the great gift of answers!
And finally, the day itself arrived. None went to work; indeed, even those who wished to ignore the whole ordeal were unable to do so, as the streets were filled with cheering crowds, all of them staring up into the sky as they searched for the tiny spot that would resolve itself to be the Dauntless. Several carriages collided with each other due to the crowded streets and the inattention of their drivers, before finally being abandoned and left in the middle of the road.
Speculation flew back and forth; crazy rumors sprouted, fed upon each other. The explorers were returning with intelligent life that they’d captured! No, it wasn’t truly the explorers at all – dangerous enemies had hijacked their ship to conquer Earth! The men were back, but they weren’t truly themselves, infected by strange humors from Luna!
And then, eliciting a roar that raced across the city, the small dot of the Dauntless appeared in the sky.
Hundreds of telescopes immediately confirmed that the dot was indeed the Dauntless, and the ship appeared intact and largely undamaged. It slowly descended, rotors turning as it steered down. The explorers themselves weren’t visible, likely inside piloting the ship, but the crowd still cheered, waving flags and pennants in the air.
The ship was definitely under conscious control; it steered itself towards the greenery of Hyde Park. The ship descended as hundreds of bobbies did their best to hold back the surging crowds, trying to avoid a trampling rush.
The ship touched down, lightly, kissing the earth.
The door opened. The crowd roared.
But as an occupant emerged from the interior, every voice fell silent, eyes widening and staring.
To be continued!