"The Flight That Failed" by A. E. van Vogt and E. M. Hull (1942)
Wednesday 6 July 2022, by
An aircraft pilot on a critical war-time mission across the Atlantic is suddenly warned by a mysterious passenger that the flight is in mortal danger from enemy warcraft that have been informed of the flight’s secret contents and of its flight plan. The passenger turns out to possess extraordinary powers that are turned to good use to save the ship and the whole Allied war effort from catastrophe.
First published in the December 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction under the name of E. Mayne Hull, A. E. van Vogt’s wife  and illustrated by Orban – an outstandingly good effort to apply science fiction to bolstering the Allied war effort.
An e-book is are available for downloading below.
THE FLIGHT THAT FAILED
The white crescent of moon flitted from cloud to cloud, as if it, too, was a great, three-engined plane charging high above the night waters of the northern Atlantic.
Twice, when its shape was partly hidden by a woolpack of a cloud, the illusion of another plane with all lights on was so vivid that Squadron Leader Clair stiffened, fingers instinctively reaching for the radio switch, and words quivering on his lips to warn the silly fool out there that this was war, and that, within half an hour, they would enter the danger zone.
Reflections, Clair muttered the second time, damn those reflections of that bright, glowing moon.
In the half light, he turned to Flying Officer Wilson, but, for a moment, so dazzling was the play of moon rays through the domed glass cockpit that – for that prolonged instant – the navigator’s body seemed to shine, as if a million glittering reflections were concentrated on his long, powerful frame.
Clair shook his head to clear his vision, and said: "Never saw the moon so bright. Puts one in mind of the old folk tales about the power of the moonbeams to conjure shapes, to reflect strange things that do not exist –”
His voice trailed. He squinted at the man beside him. With a tiny start, he saw that it was not Wilson, but one of the passengers. The fellow said in a quiet voice: "How goes it?"
It was not the words themselves, but a suggestive quality in the tone that, for a moment, brought to Clair a pleasant kaleidoscope of memory: his family home on the lower St. Lawrence, his mother, tall and serene, his calm-eyed father, and his younger sister soon to be married.
He shook the picture out of his brain a little irritated; they were private possessions, not to be shared by any chance interrogator. Besides, here was merely some faint heart requiring reassurance about the flight.
"Everything’s fine!" Clair said; and then in a precise voice, he added: "I’m sorry, sir, passengers are not allowed in the cockpit. I must ask you to –"
For a second time, then, he stopped in the middle of a sentence, and stared.
It was hard to see the man’s face, the moon made a dazzling, reflecting fire where it splashed against his skin and body. But what Clair could make out against that surprising glare was finely constructed, a strangely strong, sensitive countenance with gray eyes that smiled a secret smile, and gazed steadily, expectantly, across at him. A tremendously interesting face it was, only –
It was not the face of any one of the passengers.
With a gasp, Clair ran his mind over the passengers, as he had checked them in hours before. Typical, they had been, two dozen of them. A sprinkling of diplomats, a little troop of military men, and a faded group of civil servants, including one government scientist.
He remembered them all, vividly, and this man had not been Beside him, the stranger said quietly:
"I wish to report my presence aboard your ship!"
"You ... WHAT?" said Clair; and his amazement was all the more violent because his mind had already led him to the very verge of the truth.
The man made no reply, simply sat there smiling quietly and the moon, which had momentarily flashed behind a cloud, jerked into sight again, and rode the dark-blue heavens to the south-southwest.
The light shattered into blazing fragments on the cockpit glass, and cascaded like countless tiny jewels, bathing the stranger in a shield of radiance.
Swiftly, Clair drew his mind into a tight acceptance of the situation that was here. His eyes narrowed: his face took on a stern expression. When he finally spoke, it was the squadron leader, commander of men, who said curtly:
"I have no idea why you have chosen to stow yourself on this ship, nor do I desire any details. It is my duty to place you in irons until we land in England."
With a flick of his hand, he drew his automatic – as the cockpit door opened, and vaguely silhouetted the bulky figure that was Wilson.
"Queerest thing that ever happened to me, Bill," the flying officer began. "One second I was sitting beside you, the next I was lying in the baggage compartment. I must have walked in my sleep and… oh!"
His eyes glinted steely blue in the moonlight, as he sent one swift glance at the gun in Clair’s fingers, then flashed his gaze to the stranger.
"Trouble?" he said, and snatched his own gun.
It was the stranger who shook his head. "No trouble at the moment," he said. "But there is going to be in a half an hour. They’ve found out about your cargo, and the attack will be in force."
He finished softly: "You will need me then."
For a single, appalled moment, Clair blanched. "You know about our cargo!" he said harshly, and then, dismayed by his own admission, snapped:
"Flying Officer Wilson, you will take this man to the baggage room, search him, and put the irons on him. If he goes quietly, keep your gun in your pocket. No use alarming the passengers unnecessarily."
"I shall go quietly," said the stranger.
Almost disconcerted by the man’s acquiescence, Clair watched him being led through the moonlit cabin. The affair seemed unsatisfactory – unfinished.
Ten minutes later, the first distant streaks of dawn tinted the long, dark waters to the east; but the crescent moon was still master of the sky. Clair sat at the controls, his forehead twisted into a worried frown. Only occasionally did he glance at the flying shape of light that, for so many hours now, had flooded the night and the sea with its brilliance.
His brow cleared finally. Because there was nothing to do but carry on. He turned to Wilson to say something to that effect; the navigator’s voice cut off his words:
"Bill!" With a start, Clair saw that his friend was gazing with a tensed fixedness into the mirror that showed the long, dimly visible passenger cabin. His own gaze flicked up, strained against the quiet gloom that was out there. But there was nothing.
The moon glowed in through the dozen windows, probing at the passengers with soft fingers of light. Some of the men were sleeping, heads nodding low, their faces shadowed by their posture. Others sat talking; and their countenances, too, made patterns of light and shade, that shifted, as they moved, into a thousand subtly different umbral effects.
It was a restful scene, utterly normal. A puzzled question was forming on Clair’s lips, when once more, urgently, Wilson spoke:
"The third seat from the back – the fellow leaning across the aisle talking to Lord Laidlaw, the British diplomatic agent – it’s him."
Clair saw. Very slowly, he stood up. He had no real sense of abnormal things. "Take the wheel. sir," he said. "I’ll go see what’s what."
Wilson said: "I’ll keep an eye on you."
As Clair squeezed out into the passenger cabin, the stranger looked up. It seemed impossible that the fellow was able to see him, where there were only shadows, where the moonlight did not penetrate, but he must have. He smiled, said something to his lordship, and then stood up.
Clair’s fingers flashed to his gun, then relaxed, as the man turned his back, and, walking to the rear of the aisle, sank into a double seat that was there.
Once more, he looked up, seemingly straight into Clair’s eyes. He beckoned Clair to the vacant seat beside him. The squadron leader approached hesitantly. There was something very strange here, but his mind wouldn’t quite hurdle aver the strangeness.
He loomed over the man, then, frowning, sank down beside him. He said curtmy:
"How did you break out of those irons?"
There was no immediate answer; and, for the thousandth time in that long night, Clair grew conscious of the intense brilliance of the moon. Crescent-shaped, it raced high in the heavens to the south-southwest; and it did shining things to the broad, dark belly of the sea. The water seemed as near as the night, and, like ridges of glass, sent up a shadowed blaze of reflections.
Reflections that caught his eyes, and made it preternaturally hard for him to look intently at the stranger, as the man said:
"I didn’t think you would believe me if I told you that the irons would be useless against me. Accordingly, I am letting the fact speak for itself."
Clair made an impatient gesture. He felt a genuine irritation at the other for talking nonsense now, when the zone of danger was so incredibly near.
"Look here," he snapped, "it is within my authority to put a bullet in you if I consider that your presence will endanger this ship. Who are you?"
"Let me understand you," the man said, and his voice was curiously troubled. "You see nothing unusual in the fact that I have broken out of the irons?"
"Obviously," said Clair, "you’re one of those people with very small hands."
"I see." The man was silent; then: "This is going to be even more difficult than I imagined. I thought that my escaping from your manacles would release you to a small degree from your normal mental inhibitions."
"What are you talking about?"
"I’m afraid," was the strangely sad reply, "I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand. If I could convince you, I would tell you my identity, but your mind is too enthralled by the practical world in which you have your being. By a trick, by means of a moon-ray time reflector machine, I have established my existence in this world, and now you accept me. But I am afraid I shall have to plan my purpose around that limited fact. I had hoped you would free all my enormous strength but –”
He broke off, then finished: "Your friend searched me, and found no weapons, therefore you should not object to letting me sit here till the destroyer planes come – even under the terrible handicap of your reality, I think I can save you then."
Clair had listened to the unfolding words with the growing, empty conviction that he was talking to a madman. Now, for a moment, he cursed silently the incredibly bad luck that had forced such a situation upon him in this, his most important fight. He began angrily:
"I don’t know what kind of nonsense you’ve got in your mind, but I’ll tell you this much: if a flight of Messerschmitts attack us in the next forty minutes, our machine guns won’t be much good. In any event, they’ll be manned by Flying Officer Wilson, Colonel Ingraham and Major Gray. If you have some queer idea that you –"
He cut himself off decisively: "I’m afraid I have no choice, but to put the irons on you again. They’re adjustable, and this time I’ll see that they don’t slip off."
The man nodded gravely, and, without a word, led the way back to the baggage compartment.
Returning forward. Clair paused beside Lord Laidlaw. He said: "For your private information, sir, the man to whom you were talking a minute ago is a stowaway. I would like to ask you what he said to you."
His lordship was a plump-faced man with keen, grayish eyes. He fixed them shrewdly on the squadron leader. "Funny chap," he commented finally. "Had a hard time seeing him because of the way the moon kept shining in his face. I’m afraid his remarks were very trite, though they stirred some pleasant memories and generally titillated the idealistic side of my nature. He asked me how it went with me and my family."
Frowning, Clair strode on to the cockpit.
The light in the east was stronger; a world of graying shadows that streaked the gray-dark waters; and all the horizon glowed with that first faint promise of a brilliant morning
Some of the ice began to thaw out of Clair’s mind: the new lines of worry in his forehead smoothed, and an eager expectancy crept into his eyes.
"Well" – he finished the low-voiced discussion with Wilson – ’we’re agreed. I’ve already set the ship in its new course. If anyone is seeking a rendezvous with us on the basis of secret knowledge of our planned course, they’ll have to look again. I – "
He stopped, as the cockpit door tilted open, and the semi-bald head of Lord Laidlaw was outlined in the gloom of the door’s shadow.
"Er," said his lordship. "that fellow has come back into the passenger cabin. You said you had put him in irons, so I thought I’d better mention it."
Clair spun out of his seat. "By God!" he flared, "that fellow’s hands mustn’t actually be any larger than his wrists. He’s been selected for this job, and I’m going to find out what it is."
His fury sustained him, as he hurried along the aisle. But it died abruptly as he paused, and stood, frankly nonplused, staring down at the fellow. The vague wish came that the moon would go behind a cloud, so that he might get a really good look at the interloper.
Before he could narrow his complex thoughts into words, the stranger said in an astoundingly stern voice:
"I hope you have sufficient imagination to be convinced that you cannot imprison me. I assure you that time is short."
Clair sank down in the seat beside the other. "Look here," he said in his most reasonable voice, "you don’t seem to realize the seriousness of your actions. Now tell me, how did you get out of those irons?"
Through the unnaturally radiant reflections of the crescent moon, Clair saw that the stranger was staring at him steadily. The man said finally, slowly:
"Squadron Leader Clair – you see, I know your name an aboard this ship to save it from what will be, without my aid, certain destruction. There are two ways in which I can do that. The first is, if you remain ignorant of my identity and allow me, when the enemy comes, to operate one of your machine guns. This is by far the best method because it involves no mental contortions on the part of you or your passengers. You simply continue to accept me automatically as a physical entity. Do anything you please to protect yourself; keep pistols trained on me anything: but in the final issue, do not try to stop me from using a machine gun."
"Look here" – Clair spoke wearily – "you’ve already undermined my career simply by being aboard. I’ll have to explain my negligence in not discovering you before we took off, and I can just see myself adding that I substituted you for Colonel Ingraham on one of the machine guns."
He stared at the other with earnest conviction in his mind that he was persuading an unbalanced person.
"I’m putting it that way," he said, "so that you will see my side, and realize the impossibility of your request. You’ve got some idea that we have a valuable cargo aboard. You’re mistaken. You – "
He had intended to turn again to persuasion, but a new thought brought him to frowning pause: If he could slowly change the subject and He said swiftly:
"By the way, what do you think we have aboard?"
The man told him quietly; and Clair changed color. He sat for a moment as still as death, all purpose forgotten before the tremendous fact that the man actually did know. Then, white and grim, he said:
"I admit it’s a valuable load, but only in the narrow sense of the word. Its value is little more than a hundred thousand dollars. I can’t see the German Air Command wasting time trying to trap a plane whose take-off time they could not possibly know, especially when their interceptor planes would be so much better occupied trying to sink the ships of that convoy we passed half an hour ago."
He grew aware that the stranger was staring at him with a melancholy sardonicism. The man said:
"Squadron Leader Clair, there has never been a more valuable cargo shipped. Its destruction changed the course of world history."
"Its destruction!" echoed Clair; then he caught himself. He gathered the realities of his situation back into his brain. There was no longer any doubt: here beside him was a raving madman and The man was speaking again:
"In searching me, your friend refrained from removing a book which is in my right coat pocket. I had this book printed under great difficulties in what used to be New York City; and I would like you to glance at Page 27, and read there part of the description of the flight of this ship, and what followed when it was shot down, and lost with all on board."
Clair took the book, and there was not a thought in his head, as he stared down at it. There was a feeling in him that he was dreaming, and the unreal effect was augmented by the way he had to bring the book close to his eyes, and hold it just so to let the moonlight fall on it.
Page 27, he saw, was heavily underscored. The first paragraph, so marked, read:
"The two-engined transport, NA-7044, left its Newfoundland airport at 9:00 p. m., November 26th, and was shot down at 4:12 a. m. the following morning, both times being Greenwich, and in the year 1942 A. D., which was in the curious, old chronology. The chief pilot was Squadron Leader Ernest William Clair, a very practical and conscientious young man. The passengers included Thomas Ahearn, admiralty agent, John Leard Capper, American government physicist, Lord Laidlaw, who was returning to England after having failed in his mission to – "
Clair tore his gaze from the page; his thought scurried madly back to the phrase that had struck him like a blow. "Good God!" he gasped. "Where did you get that plane number? No one knew definitely which plane was going out until late last night."
"You poor fool!" the stranger said sadly. "You still think in terms of your reality. If you continue to be so blind, there is no hope."
Clair scarcely heard. He was jerking up his wrist, peering at the watch that was strapped there. He felt a strange heady shock, as he saw the time.
It was exactly three minutes after four.
For Clair, the strange thing in that tensed, startled moment was that he became aware of the throbbing of the engines. The sound, so long subdued by familiarity that it scarcely ever touched his consciousness, was a whine that sawed along his nerves. His brain twanged with that poignant and ceaseless roar.
Through the fury of the beating motors, he heard himself say coldly:
"I don’t know what your game is, but the very elaborateness of your preparations proves that the most drastic measures are in order. Therefore – "
He paused wildly, stunned by the dark and deadly intention in his brain: to shoot, not to kill, but to incapacitate.
The stranger’s voice cut across his stark hesitation:
"All this that you have seen and heard; and it means nothing to you. Does your mind simply reject the very intrusion of a new idea? What is there about Good that, at certain stages of its development, it falters, and stands trembling and blind on the edge of the abyss, while Evil, ablaze with a rejuvenated imagination, strides to its dreadful victory?
"I can see now that for me, here, success in the great way is impossible. But try, try to lift your mind above this binding sense of duty and let me handle the machine gun. Will you promise?"
"No!" Clair spoke with the distinct finality of one who was utterly weary of the subject. Squadron Leader Ernest William Clair, D. F. C., went on: "You will refrain from further attempts, please, to embellish on this fantastic story. When we reach England, I shall have you arrested as a spy, and your explanation will have to be very good indeed if you hope even to account for what you have already revealed. It will be assumed and it is you who will have to prove otherwise, that your purpose aboard this ship was destructive and– "
His voice faded. Clair swallowed hard, and the thought that came was like a black tidal wave that swept him to his feet with a cry. He drew his gun, and backed hastily along the aisle, holding it tense.
From the corners of his eyes, he saw heads jerk up, and passengers twist in their seats. He had their attention, and he said swiftly, in a clear, ringing voice:
"Gentlemen, we have a stowaway aboard; and, as I am unable to obtain a coherent story from him, I must assume that he might have smuggled a bomb aboard. He keeps repeating that this ship is to be destroyed within fifteen or twenty minutes – the exact hour he mentions is twelve minutes after four – so it could be a time bomb.
"Hunt for that bomb! Everyone, out of your seats! This is no time for niceties. Down on your knees, search every corner, every compartment and someone scramble into the tail. Use flashlights, but keep them pointed at the floor. Now, hurry!"
An officer with a deep voice said quietly: "Sirs, let us make this thorough. Civilians and military are about equally represented aboard. The civilians take the rear, the soldiers the front."
Clair added swiftly: "I suggest a cursory search of one minute, followed by a detailed examination. Is that satisfactory, Colonel Ingraham?"
"Excellent!" said the colonel.
It was the strangest thing in the world, standing there in that swift, darkened plane, half watching the shapes of the men, as they crawled around, peering under seats, poking into bags, examining racks – half watching the stranger, who sat like a graven image, face turned into the flood rays of the moon, which was farther to the rear of the ship now, its strong, refulgent light pouring in through the windows at a distinct angle.
The man said slowly, without bitterness, but with infinite sadness:
"This futile search, when all you have to do is to look in your own minds. The seeds of your destruction are there. If this ship is lost, freedom goes with it. There are no other key points in our time. Once more: will–you–let–me handle that machine gun?"
"No!" said Clair; and there was silence between them in that hurtling, moonlit ship.
The white moonlight made a network of dim light, casting long shadows across the dark cabin, doing distorting things to the straining faces of the men as they searched. Flashlights glowed cautiously at brief intervals, peering into dark corners, glaring hard against shiny surfaces.
Three, then five minutes; and they were all back in the cabin. They formed a dark cluster around Clair, where he stood, his revolver trained on the interloper. Their faces, out of the direct line of moonlight that streamed through the faintly shuddering windows, formed a series of roughly circular light splotches.
Only the stranger was in the light, and he was silent. Clair explained briefly what had happened, and what precautions he had taken; he finished:
"So you see, we had him in irons twice; and each time he came out here. Did you examine them, Lord Laidlaw, when you were in the baggage room, as I suggested?"
"Yes." The nobleman spoke briskly. "They were still locked. I should say that we have here one of those curious people who can contract their palms to the size of their wrists."
"In my opinion," said Colonel Ingraham, "this man is mad. The story he told you is definitely that of an unbalanced person. The solution is to put the irons on him out here, and have him under guard till we land."
"There’s one point," interrupted a very clear, incisive voice. "This is Ahearn speaking, by the way, Thomas Ahearn of the admiralty – one point: You mentioned that he showed you a book, and that it contained – what?"
Clair handed the volume over quietly. "If you’ll bend down toward the floor," he suggested, "you can use your flashlight on it."
Mer pushed past him to get around the admiralty man; then a light gleaned. then –
"Why, it contains some queer account of the fight of this plane, with all our names."
"Is my name there?" came a new voice from the back of the mass. "Brown – Kenneth Brown!"
"Yes, it’s here." It was Ahearn who answered. "But that’s impossible!" Brown ejaculated. "I didn’t know until two hours before we left that I would be on this plane. How could anybody find that out, write it up, and publish a book about it – and, for Heaven’s sake, why would they want to?"
Clair stood very still; and the queerest feeling came that he was listening to his own voice saying these shallow, useless words, making protests about the impossibility of it all, crying out to the idolatrous god of logic with a parrotlike fanaticism, and never once thinking about anything.
He glanced automatically at his watch, tensed a little, and said tautly:
"Gentlemen! If you will allow me, I shall ask the prisoner one question."
It took a moment for silence to settle, but he needed the time to frame the incredible question that was in his mind. He said finally:
“Stranger, when did you come aboard this ship? I said – when?"
The man’s eyes were steady pools; his face grew noticeably more distinct. "I heard you, Squadron Leader Clair. To you alone, for your consideration, I say: I came aboard about forty minutes ago. Think of that; think it through; don’t let it go."
Exclamations blurred across his last words; then Colonel Ingraham snapped angrily:
"Sir, we haven’t time to bother with this person. Let us iron him, and set a guard over him."
Clair’s brain was like rigid metal. The stiff feeling came that he ought to turn and apologize to the others for his utterly ridiculous question. But there was a fascination in his mind that held him spellbound; and finally a thought that was a twisting, irresistible force; he said:
"What is your real reason for being aboard this ship?"
The reply was a shrug: then: "I’m sorry: I see I was mistaken about you. I’ve already told you in effect that this is a key flight in history. It must get through; it can only get through with my help."
He shrugged again, finished: "I notice that you have shifted the course of the ship. That is good, that is something. It has already broken the hard trail of events, and the attack will be delayed. But that delay will be small – out of all proportion to the extent of your change of course. Seven, eight minutes at most."
For a second time, Clair was silent. The thought came that the shadows of the early morning and the dazzling, crescent moon were affecting his mind. For incredibly, he was not rejecting a single word; for him, for this moment, this man’s every word formed a species of reason and –
And, he’d better be careful; or he’d be out of the service for being a credulous fool. He, whose nickname at training school had been Solid-Head Clair, credulous!
So swiftly came revulsion. He shook himself, and said, striving for coldness:
"Now, that we have verified that there are no bombs aboard, I think Colonel Ingraham’s suggestion is the best: in irons, under armed guard, out here. Colonel Ingraham and Major Gray, I suggest you man the machine guns to which you were previously assigned – "
His voice trailed off, for the stranger was staring at him with a bitter anguish.
"You blind fool. I can only exist if you sustain the illusion that is me with your minds; and that illusion would collapse instantly if I had to sit out here in chains, under guard. Accordingly. I must leave; and the first hope, and the best, is gone. Now, you must know my identity. When you need me, call – but there will be no answer unless you call with understanding. Good-by."
For an instant, so determinedly did Clair’s mind refuse to accept the absence of the form that had been there, that he blinked.
Then the thought came that the moon was too bright, and that dazzling reflections of its white, too white rays were playing tricks with his eyes And then –
Reality penetrated the absence, the utter absence, of the stranger.
They searched the ship, as the dawn in the east grew noticeably stronger, casting its pale, wan glow over all the sky ahead and all the forward sea. Only the west behind them remained dark, and the moon was there, a shining, hurtling shape, yielding not yet to the brightness of the new day.
And it was exactly four twelve by the glowing hands of Clair’s wrist watch as the men grudgingly gave up their vain search.
"Funniest thing that ever happened!" a voice tilted against the dimness. "Did we dream that?"
"I could swear he dived for the floor just before he vanished," said a second voice. "He must be somewhere. If we could shift some of that baggage."
"At least" – it was the man, Brown – "we’ve still got his book."
Twelve minutes after four.
Clair faced along the aisle to the cockpit. "Anything?" he said to Wilson. "See anything – any planes?"
He stared with Wilson, and with Major Gray, who was at the port machine gun, into the brightening world. But there was nothing, not a speck, nothing but the sky and the sea and the – moon!
It glittered at him, and hurtled along through the dark-blue heaven; and the thought came to Clair: the silvery crescent moon – creating – reflections –
4:14 a. m.
And he felt no relief; for he had changed the course, and the man had said it would mean only infinitesimal delay.
Minutes, and then – bullets crashing into them all, a terrible fusillade that would burn and tear and destroy the whole world – unless –
Unless he called with understanding of identity! But how could he ever understand? There were no clues, nothing but a scatter of meaningless words, nothing but – death.
A man whose hands flicked out of handcuffs, who talked of key points in history, who had a book that described this flight, and the destruction of all on board, described it as a past event. The book –
He was out in the dimness that was the cabin "The book!" he called. "Who’s got the book that chap left?"
"Right here," said the man, Kenneth Brown. The passengers were all in their seats. "I’ve been reading out passages. Damnedest, queerest book I ever laid eyes on. It’s actually got my name in it" – he couldn’t seem to get over the wonder of it – "my name, imagine that. You’ve got to give these Germans credit –"
The funny thing, Clair thought – no, the incredible tragedy of all this, was that their minds wouldn’t accept what their eyes had seen. Something shaped like a human being had come into their midst, then vanished before their eyes – and their brains simply skittered over the impossible event, and now they sat here like so many spectators who had been entertained by a magician, wondering in a thrilled, unworried fashion how the devil the trick had been worked.
Danger, the black and deadly danger – they saw it not. But blindly chattered on about everything except the reality.
"Show him the frontispiece!" A voice cut into his burning reverie. "That’s the real give-away. It’s in German!"
The man, Brown, echoed: "Absolutely, the whole frontispiece in German, Look, the name of that city."
The book was held up into the light of the moon; a shadowed finger pointed. Clair strained and read:
743 N. H.
"What gets me," said Brown, "is that 743 N. H. at the bottom. It’s senseless."
Clair said grayly: "Nach Hitler" – it was funny how he knew, but he did, with utter certainty – "after Hitler. Seven hundred and forty-three years after. Hitlerstadt is, of course, the city we now call New York."
There was a ripple of laughter, and somebody said: "Wha’ did he say? Wha’ did he say?"
The sentence was repeated, but the man did not echo the laughter. "Oh," he said, "Oh, I’m glad somebody’s got a sense of humor. I’ve just been sitting here thinking if this might not be some manifestation of a secret enemy weapon. And I must say, I couldn’t think of how they could have worked it."
There was more laughter. It was amazing to Clair how good-humored they had become. Somebody whispered to him: "That’s Capper, the scientist."
"I know!" Clair nodded. He was thinking desperately: If he could keep them thinking it was all humor, and yet gain information... He said, straining for lightness, but heavy and cold with the import of his words:
"Professor Capper, we might as well carry this through: Is there a theory of time which would explain how an event which has already occurred can be changed, so that something entirely different would transpire?"
"Of course, of course." The scientist spoke irritably. "The world is full of nonsensical ideas. Everything’s been thought of – everything. Trust human beings to waste their time with such stuff."
Clair fought an inner battle to keep his fingers from grabbing the other’s neck, and shaking the explanation out of him. The sense of urgency in him was so great that his voice trembled as he said:
"For the sake of curiosity, what is the theory?"
"Why, it’s nothing but the old factor of – "
The plane swerved in a dizzy, twisting dive that sent Clair hurtling against a seat. He caught the plush back of the chair with a grip that nearly tore his muscles from his body.
There followed a sickening moment where the only sound was the shrill whine of the engines in the full fury of a power dive; and then –
Glass splintered. Bullets smashed against shiny woodwork, and screeched on metal. From somewhere near, a man screamed in the agony of death, Clair cursed aloud with a terrible understanding. The great transport plane had been swept from tail to nose by machine-gun fire.
He managed to wedge his body into the comparative stability and safety of the seat opposite the scientist, Capper – and through the window he saw the sliver-thin planes of the crooked cross, black pencils against the lightening sky.
Three of them darted past his narrow line of vision, like black angels gleaming in the moonlight, reflections of malignant beauty –
The thought came to Clair that he ought to be struggling to reach the cockpit, and that he was ruining himself by sitting here, ruining his great record, ruining himself in the eyes of the passengers.
Ruin – utter ruin –
And it mattered not. The thoughts were in his mind, but they were like burning phantoms, consuming their own substance, completely uncorrelatable to physical action. In his brain was one purpose, one unquenchable and tremendous purpose.
He leaned over to the scientist; he half shouted: "What is this theory of time?"
He braced himself for a verbal explosion, a tongue flaying that would sear his brain; an opinion about an officer neglecting his duty that would sting in his memory throughout all time. And there was a picture in his mind, a vivid, terrifying picture, of how the question he had asked would sound in court-martial testimony.
It mattered not. All the certainties, the motivations that had ruled his brain in the past seemed remote and unreal. There was only –
"Professor Capper, that time theory of which you spoke?"
"Young man," came the reply, "you amaze me; your courage, your calmness – Thank you, sir, for being so matter-of-fact. Your example saved me from making a cowardly fool of myself. But I’m under control now – and you’re right, there is no reason why we shouldn’t discuss science or pseudo-science – ”
Clair stared blankly; then came a brief, dark astonishment at the other’s unexpected reaction. It was a form of hysteria, of course, and there was ego here, an utter acceptance that a plane commander would, in a crisis, waste his time talking to a passenger. But –
For his purpose, it was as if God Himself had reached forth His magic hand, and rendered everything easy. Fighting for control, Clair said:
"Professor, the time theory – give it to me as succinctly as possible."
"A lot of nonsense, of course," the man rumbled, "but fascinating to talk about under such conditions. Probable worlds! Imagine that – "
His voice trailed off; Clair heard him muttering something more about nonsense – and trembled so violently that he could hardly stay in his seat.
"Probable worlds? What do you mean?"
"What I said. Suppose the ancient Sea-peoples had conquered Egypt; suppose Xerxes had defeated the Greek States; suppose the Moors had overrun Europe; suppose the Germans won this war; suppose –”
"But bow does that fit the theory?"
In the light of the moon, the thin face of the professor frowned at Clair: "Don’t be so impatient. There is no hurry. The attack isn’t over yet; and we might as well talk. I want to thank you again for making it possible for me to face this situation with a fearlessness I never expected was in me. It feels great, wonderful. It – "
The twisting thought came to Clair that he would have to tell this loquacious savant the truth. He parted his lips and then, through the window, he saw the black shape swoop in from the north.
"Duck!" he yelled, and jerked himself flat on the aisle floor, as the plane crackled and reverberated with the bullets that tore along its length.
A heavy body collapsed on top of Clair. At least, it felt unbearably heavy at the moment of fall; only it was surprisingly easy to lift the professor’s slight form back into his seat. The man crouched there, coughing a little, mumbling to himself.
Cold with the certainty of what had happened, Clair shook the drooping body.
"Professor – "
The head lifted wearily; and a strong glow of moonlight reflected from a pair of small, watery eyes.
"Never so proud," came the mumble. "Never thought I’d face death like this. How can we lose this war, if even I – "
"The time theory!" Clair croaked.
"Oh, yes, the old business of probables. You’re the bravest man I ever met, squadron leader, to carry on such a conversation, and I’m not so bad myself. Tell them that, eh? Tell them we talked about... about time theories, about worlds and men that might have existed if – something hadn’t happened. Of course, to the theorist, those worlds do exist, that is, some projection of them, something of the spirit that carried on – "
"Professor, that stranger – he claimed to be from the future that would exist if we won this war – ”
For an instant, after Clair had spoken, the scientist’s watery eyes brightened; he mumbled: "So that’s what you’ve been getting at. But it’s impossible. I’ll tell you why if he was only from a probable world, he couldn’t have materialized here."
"But he didn’t materialize. That’s what he said. That’s why he could slip out of our irons. He was only a reflection of – and this is his own phrase – of a moon-ray time reflector machine, and that we had to accept the illusion mentally before it would even exist as much as it did. Professor –"
"Impossible. You’ve forgotten the book he left. That was material."
"But, sir" – Clair had a hopeless feeling – "he said he had that printed under great difficulties in Hitlerstadt."
"Spirit" – the professor’s voice was a remote, husky thing; and it was all too obvious that his mind had gyrated back to an earlier theme "that’s it, spirit like ours cannot die... proud that I personally took a bullet without flinching, and after all my fears, too... proud – "
He crumpled like a house of cards; and Clair who had seen death too often to doubt its presence now, climbed over the contorted body in the aisle. He was shaking a little, but his mind was quite clear. Whatever hope there might have been of some mysterious superman coming to the rescue from a world that had yet to prove its right to exist – that hope was gone now.
The only man who knew enough to fill in the all-necessary details of identity was dead, and that meant –
The time had come to fight.
The two men in the cockpit snarled at him like beasts as he entered. Clair saw, from narrowing eyes, that Wilson’s right arm hung, a limp, tattered, bloody object at his side. Major Gray was at the port gun, hugging it to his shoulder. Both men flashed him the desperate expressions of human beings determinedly facing a hopeless martyrdom. It was Wilson who raged:
"Where in hell do you think you’ve been, you damned – "
There was, Clair recognized in a biting self-condemnation, justice behind those lashing words. But they were born of maddening pain, and served no useful purpose. He knew exactly what to do, what to say, his answer grew alive out of events:
"Silence!" He flared the words, because only anger could penetrate here. He sneered: "So you’ve given up in your hearts, both of you. Think we’re licked, eh? Going to go on shooting to the last, but deep in your minds you know it’s all hopeless. What can a transport do against fighter planes?
"Shut up!" He snapped the words at Major Gray, whose lips were parting for speech. "I know exactly what you’re thinking, but I’ve just seen a man die, who knew how, and if anybody in this cockpit disgraces him, I’ll take that person’s body, and throw it out of the ship. Only men are going to have the honor of going down with this plane."
Before that blazing tirade, the two men, Wilson and the major, exchanged one amazed glance. Gray shrugged his stocky shoulders with the unmistakable gesture of a man who recognized stark insanity when he saw it.
Clair didn’t feel mad. His whole body was aglow with life that quivered like an itching finger on a hair trigger. Never had he been more alert, more conscious of the utter joy of being.
He saw the torpedo-shape silhouette for an instant against the moon, and as the Messerschmitt dived toward them in a long, slanting curve, he crouched over the starboard gun, his mind rocksteady, his whole body intent on aiming.
After a moment, he compressed the trigger gently, and held it back.
It took a moment, then, for his eyes to recover from the blinding light that ballooned into incandescence where the Hun ship had been.
A shrill yell sounded from Wilson: "Good boy! He blew up!"
The remote thought came to Clair that men in crises were chameleons in their emotions. His navigator who had hated with violence, now praised in a storm of approval.
That thought passed because he noticed the oddness with a start – there was a difference in the feel of the gun. It was bulkier. But it felt strangely, immensely lighter; immeasurably easier to handle.
But there was something else, a mind-soaring difference: it had glowed green against the half light of the early morning sky: the whole shiny barrel had tinted a pale, iridescent green.
And the funniest part of all was that he had not the slightest doubt of what had happened:
He was firing a ray of intolerable energy!
As he crouched, he was conscious for the first time of the quiet confidence that was in him, the certainties. Unlike anything he had ever known, a sense of destiny.
He waited for the next attack from the unsuspecting enemy, and became aware of another unusualness.
It required a moment to understand what it was: silence!
Clair frowned; and then again he nodded to himself in perfect comprehension. There was no roar of engines. Which was utterly natural: the spaceship that had been NA-7044 wouldn’t be using gasoline engines.
It glided on with a glasslike smoothness, a superb armored creature of deep space, idling along with an impregnable casualness.
Clair stood up, and slipped into the seat before the duplicate controls. "I’ll take over," he said very gently to Wilson. "You get to the medicine kit, and do something for that arm. We’ll land in a few minutes."
As he finished speaking, his eyes searched the controls; and he smiled with a sudden, heart-quickening glee. The controls, though they were almost the same, were a shade different. The difference between life and death.
The accelerator was like some supersensitive pressure gauge; it reacted to the barest touch, With boldness Clair pressed it hard – and reeled from a moment of ultraspeed. He saw the great, familiar sweep of England’s shore.
They came down with scarcely a jar. The crescent moon was a pale shadow in the middle-western sky, as Clair stepped to the ground beside Colonel Ingraham.
The colonel swelled a little. "We certainly made it hot for those Boches. I blew two of them up myself. Must have set off their bomb nests."
For an instant, the officer’s utter obliviousness to what had really happened, was startling. But actually, Clair thought finally, it explained something that had been puzzling:
The superman had been able to materialize because Professor Capper had identified his origin, but, more than that, because the scientist had, in his superb death, provided an intense source of nervous exaltation – the purest of energies.
Enough energy around which to project, not only a dynamic will, but a concrete spaceship.
Why was the spaceship still here? That had been the puzzling thing until Colonel Ingraham spoke, and which now was as clear as light:
The people of freedom’s great future, the only world now, were not simply trusting to the fact that a flight, which had once failed, had, by their intervention, succeeded.
Men were too obstinate, too blind, too practical; so –
The superman that had been Squadron Leader Ernest William Clair smiled a secret smile. He was here to see that a world would be born properly.
 The Flight That Failed was credited to E. Mayne Hull in the December 1942 issue of Astounding and also in short-story anthologies published in the fifties, but it was credited to both A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull in all later van Vogt anthologies published during the A. E. van Vogt’s lifetime.
– one explanation for this discrepancy is that the later publications were partially attributed to him for commercial reasons, in view of his much greater notoriety.
– however the style and the story line have a strong A. E. touch about them, which suggests that he very may well have used his wife’s name as a pen-name, a fairly common practice among s-f writers at the time, notably Astounding’s editor John Campbell (author of Who Goes There?), so as to be able to publish more than one story in the same issue of a s-f magazine. This issue of Astounding already featured the vV story The Weapon Shop on its cover.