No one knew which of the three explorers might emerge first, and indeed, several clubs of debatable repute set up private wagers on the topic. So when a figure appeared in the entrance to the Dauntless, all eyes (and telescopes on roofs) trained their gazes upon him.
The man turned out to be Walter Raleigh, eliciting a groan of disappointment from many; given as how Tycho Brahe funded the expedition, a good number of bettors had expected him to step out first, claiming the lion’s share of glory.
As Raleigh stumbled down the ramp, however, murmurs broke out among the assembled crowds. The man didn’t carry himself with the confidence and assuredness of a triumphant explorer. He looked haggard, his eyes wide and darting back and forth.
“Send for aid!” he shouted out, his voice ringing out over the discomforted crowd. “Brahe is hurt!”
Amid growing mutterings from the crowd, a man fought his way through the throngs of people, coming up against the wall of police bobbies who tried to hold back the commoners from rushing the airship.
“Let me through!” he cried, brandishing a carved hickory cane in one hand and a large valise in the other. “I’m a doctor!”
Several of the bobbies hesitated, perhaps wondering whether they should look to their superiors for orders, but the doctor managed to pierce the barrier, almost entirely by will alone. Appearing young with a clean-shaven face, despite little hints of gray in his dark hair, he ran forward on strong legs, not hesitating as he charged up the gantry of the Dauntless.
Raleigh turned and looked back at the ship, as if poised on the verge of fleeing. Several reporters for the local broadsides, however, pressed forward to cut him off.
“Mr. Raleigh!” one shouted out, managing to capture the explorer’s attention. “Tell us, what did you see? What was it like on Luna?”
“Is there life? Did you find any signs of intelligence?” cried out another.
The questions piled up, coming far too quickly for Raleigh to have any hope of answering them. “Is there game over there, good sport for hunters? What did you eat? What was it like? What did you see? Was it inhabited? Where did you land? Are the oceans similar to our own? What did you see?”
Finally, the questions pushed the poor man to his breaking point. “Enough!” he bellowed, and even the most intrepid of reporters drew back at the roar of his voice. “There is no time for this! We must prepare!”
Thankfully, assistance was at hand. Several of the Queen’s Guards had arrived with their own carriage, and hard-faced men rushed towards Raleigh. “Sir, this way!” they called out, gesturing to their conveyance. “You must be debriefed!”
Raleigh allowed the Queen’s Guards to lead him to the carriage, but one reporter, bolder – or perhaps more foolhardy – than his fellows, kept chasing after, still yelling out.
“What do you want to tell the public?” he shouted out, desperate for some answer from the famed explorer, poet, artist, and now interplanetary traveler.
This question, it seemed, made it through the haze that fell across Raleigh’s eyes. “All is not serene!” he shouted out, his eyes rolling and his body pitching as if on marionette’s strings. Several Queen’s Guards moved forward to catch him as he sagged, but his voice kept crying out. “We must prepare! We are all in terrible danger!”
These cries reached the public, and for many already on edge, they tipped the balance between calm and panic. Several men and women, already excited beyond reason, burst into shouts and screams as they turned and tried to run back, into the bulk of their countrymen. The bobbies found themselves attempting to contain a crowd that turned on itself, quickly losing the battle against mindless panic.
On board the Dauntless, meanwhile, Thomas Watson looked around. “Drake! Brahe!” he shouted out, his heart pounding. He could not quite explain why he’d volunteered to come running forward – it was not out of bravery, or dedication to his medical craft – but he felt adrenalin pounding in his veins.
A groan came from behind a closed door, and the doctor spun around. His hip, slightly untrustworthy after an old war wound, gave a twinge but didn’t give out. Still gripping his cane and valise, he hurried forward, pulling open the door.
A scene from a nightmare greeted him.
When the Dauntless departed, it had appeared immaculate, the work of entire teams of craftsmen, paid incredible sums from Brahe’s family fortune to outfit the vessel in opulent luxury. Now, however, much of that work appeared smashed or otherwise destroyed; gouges were cut out of much of the once-elegant woodwork, and Watson saw blackened scorch marks in several places.
And there, lying on a makeshift stretcher of tarpaulin, lay Tycho Brahe.
Watson rushed forward, dropping to his knees as his hand darted out to Brahe’s neck to check his pulse. He felt one, but it was weak and shallow, and the man looked pale and drawn. His lips parted, and a cracking groan slipped out.
“Relax, Tycho,” Watson murmured, his bedside manner taking over thanks to long habit. “You’re safe now, back on Earth. Let me just check you over…”
It took little time to locate the source of the man’s distress. Half of his leg seemed to be heavily burned, the skin cracked and blackened. It seemed that Brahe had been exposed to incredible heat. The pain had to be immense, and the man wavered on the verge of passing out.
Watson dug through his bag, pulling out a jar of salve. Infused with aloe, it would provide a cooling sensation, detract some of the pain. “Just relax if you can, sir,” he told Brahe, reaching out to spread some on the wound.
Brahe’s hand shot out, however, latching onto Watson’s wrist, and the scientist shot up, his eyes burning with feverish light. “Drake,” he rasped.
“What about him?” It occurred to Watson that he hadn’t seen Drake on the ship. Where was Francis Drake?
Brahe’s eyes glittered, his breath coming quickly. “They took him. Drove us off – but they’ll come, soon enough. You must warn them to prepare.”
“Warn who?” The feverish light mesmerized Watson, and he didn’t dare pull his wrist away.
“Everyone.” Brahe sank back, his strength depleted, coughing weakly. “The military. They know of us now – and they’re coming.”
And then he lost consciousness, saying nothing more as Watson, finally jarred from his reverie, treated his wounds as best he could.