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Fabien, along with his wireless operator, is flying at sunset, bringing the mail from Patagonia to Buenos Aires. Two other mail planes, one from Chile and one from Paraguay, are also headed for Buenos Aires, where another plane was to take off, at about two in the morning, with a cargo of South American mail intended for Europe. Fabien’s wireless operator, hearing reports of storms ahead, urges Fabien to land in San Julian for the night; but Fabien, looking at the clear sky and the first stars, refuses and heads for Buenos Aires.

At Buenos Aires, Rivière, the head of the mail service, is pacing the airport. Worried about the safety of his three planes, he is pleased when the plane from Chile lands safely early in the evening. Pellerin, the pilot of the plane from Chile, tells of flying through a great storm in the Andes. Although Pellerin had not experienced great difficulty, he is still shaken by his experience. Both men seem certain, at this point, that the storm would not cross the Andes. Robineau, the inspector at Buenos Aires, somewhat resentful of Rivière’s severity and unwillingness to relax discipline, reveals more pity for Pellerin’s experience than Rivière had shown. Robineau goes out to dinner with Pellerin, a meal over which they chat about women and domestic concerns, away from the tension of the airfield.

When Robineau returns to the field, Rivière criticizes him for making a friend of Pellerin. Rivière points out that supervisors, who had to order men to what might be their deaths, could not become friendly with the men under them; the supervisors had to maintain discipline and impersonality, because the success of the project, the conquest of space at night, depends on firm and immediate control. Rivière, although mastering the pain in his own side only with great difficulty, maintains severe discipline on the airfield at all times. He deprives pilots of bonuses if planes are not on time, no matter what the reason; he disciplines old Roblet severely for any minor infraction, even though Roblet had been the first man in Argentina to assemble a plane; he fires an electrician for some faulty wiring in a plane.

The wife of the pilot who was to fly from Buenos Aires to Europe receives a phone call. She awakens her husband, and he prepares for the flight. She is aware, as he is dressing, that he is already part of another world, that he has already lost interest in home, domesticity, herself. He then reports to Rivière, who reprimands him for turning back on a previous flight. Rivière is severe, although he silently admires the man’s skill.

Meanwhile, the plane from Patagonia, piloted by Fabien, enters a violent storm. As the storm becomes more serious, Fabien tries to find a place to land, for he can see nothing; but all the airfields nearby are completely closed down by the storm. Rivière gets more and more concerned. Unable to contact Fabien by radio, he alerts police and emergency services throughout the country. Fabien’s wife of only six weeks, accustomed to having him arrive for dinner by a certain hour, telephones the airfield. Rivière, feeling strong emotion, tries to reassure her that all will be well, but knows he cannot honestly say so.

When Fabien, in deep distress and thinking he might try a crash landing, throws out his only landing flare, he finds that he has been blown off course by the storm and is now over the ocean. He turns sharply west. After a time, he notices a clearing above and climbs to it....

(This entire section contains 997 words.)

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The storm is still solid beneath him, however, and he cannot find an airfield open for a landing. He has gas for only thirty minutes of flight. Buenos Aires informs him that the storm covers the whole interior of the country and that no airfield within thirty minutes’ flying time is open. Rivière, realizing that Fabien cannot fly to safety, can only hope for a lucky crash landing through the storm.

Madame Fabien, distraught, arrives at the airfield. Rivière, knowing that he cannot comfort her, is too wise to try, but he sympathizes with her distress as he tries to explain the enormous effort it takes to conquer the skies. He does not speak melodramatically to her; rather, he is matter-of-fact, and they understand each other.

At last, they receive a blurred message from Fabien reporting that he is coming down and entering the rain clouds. They do not know whether the fuel has already run out or he is attempting to glide the plane through the storm to some safe spot.

In the meantime, the plane from Paraguay arrives safely, just skirting the edge of the storm. Robineau watches Rivière closely enough to realize that Rivière is enormously concerned, that his sense of discipline is not callousness but a dedicated sense of the purpose in his mission. Robineau comes into Rivière’s office with some papers and, for a moment, there is a sense of understanding, of communion, between the two men.

As time passes, everyone realizes that Fabien is lost. Although some sign of him might still turn up the next day, there is nothing to do now and little hope that he and his wireless operator will be found alive. The pilot of the plane from Paraguay passes the pilot of the plane going to Europe. They exchange a few words about Fabien, but there is no sentimentality, for the pilots realize the necessity of carrying on with a minimum of expressed emotion. Rivière feels that this loss might be used as evidence to encourage the government to curtail nighttime flying operations. At the same time, he believes strongly that these operations must continue, that humanity must, in spite of disaster, carry on. He orders the next plane to take off on schedule.