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The Gulf Between

Editor's note: The backdrop to all of Godwin's stories is a universe which is cold and pitiless. More so than any demon, because it is a lack of mercy which stems from the fact that the universe simply does not care. Technical advances, whatever their benefits, do not fundamentally change that bleak reality. In different ways, that theme stands at the center of the last two stories in this anthology. 



He was dying! 

The fear flooded over him again, dark and smothering and made worse by his inability to move. His doctor was standing near him, watching over him with dark, patient eyes, knowing that he was dying. When a man is dying, there should be comfort in the presence of a doctor who knows how to save his life. His doctor knew he was dying and had already done the thing that should have saved him from death; the doctor had informed the pilot of his condition by means of the letters on the pilot's communications panel. They had leered at him for an endless eternity: OBSERVER DYING OF EFFECTS OF FULL ACCELERATION. IMMEDIATE REDUCTION OF ACCELERATION IS SUGGESTED.

His doctor watched him die with dark, brooding eyes and suggested to the pilot that the acceleration be reduced. 

But the pilot's seat was empty. 

He was the pilot, and the doctor knew it . . .  


Lieutenant Knight flattened himself behind the outcropping on the windswept ridge and raised his head to stare across the small basin at Hill 23, looming red-scarred and forbidding in the Korean rain; deceptively, ominously quiet, as though daring Company C to resume its vain battering at it.

"Don't look dangerous, does it?" Sergeant Wenden asked, his bush of black and gray beard close to the ground as he crawled up beside Knight. "Real calm and peaceful. Good old Hill Twenty-three—all we gotta do is take it."

The blue of the Pacific gleamed beyond Hill 23; if they could take the hill it would destroy one of the last remnants of one of the last enemy beachheads on the Korean coast. It would not be difficult—if Cullin would only wait another day until Company B came up.

"I have an idea they won't want to give that hill up," the sergeant went on. "It's their last one; their backs are to the sea and they're goin' to argue about givin' it up."

Knight did not answer, studying the terrain of the hill and the basin that lay between; planning the best route for the Fourth Platoon, the best way to give them a fighting chance.

"Yep, real calm and peaceful," the loquacious sergeant repeated. "I wonder if their snipers know we're lookin' over the ridge at 'em?"

His answer came a half second later; a spurt of rock dust as a bullet struck between them, and a shrill scream as it ricocheted away.

"Reckon they do," he grunted, dropping his whiskers low and scuttling backward from the crest of the ridge. Knight followed, and they slid to the bottom of the small gulch that ran behind the ridge.

"Of course," the talkative sergeant remarked philosophically, biting off a chew of tobacco, "bullets'll be snappin' all around us in another hour, but there ain't no reason to invite one of 'em to hit us any sooner than it has to."

Knight started back down the muddy gulch and the sergeant tramped beside him, paying no attention to his silence. "The other guys are about ready to call this war a draw, I hear. Except for Korea, here, neither us nor them is makin' any headway and they say the chances of an armistice is real good. I hope so; I've had all the war I want and I've already got it figgered out how I'm gonna settle down in Florida and raise chickens—or somethin'. Wish they'd declare the armistice right now—they're dug in on that hill and the Fourth is goin' to have one hell of a time tryin' to be the decoy and draw their fire and not all of us get killed." He scowled at Knight, his philosophical attitude turning to wrath. "A lot of men are goin' to die real soon, and for no reason. Company B will be up tonight—why can't we wait until tomorrow?"

Knight shrugged. "Orders."

"Yeah—orders!" The sergeant snorted disgustedly. "Our Captain Cullin wants his company to take that hill today, then he can tell battalion headquarters to not bother about sendin' up any support, that he done took the hill all by himself. Then, he figgers, regimental headquarters will be so impressed by his ability to do so much with so few men that they'll recommend he be raised to major. And then"—the sergeant spat viciously—"he'll have a whole battalion to give orders to, 'stead of only a company!"

Knight half heard the sergeant as they walked along, his thoughts occupied with the suicidal role his men would have to play. They would be the decoy, as the sergeant had said, deliberately and perhaps fatally drawing the concentration of enemy fire upon themselves.

" . . . I'm a Regular Army man," the sergeant was saying. "I've been in this game for thirty years, but I ain't never seen an officer like Cullin. All he thinks about is himself and his own glory. He made it plain to us what he was when he took over this company. 'A soldier is only as good as his ability to obey orders,' he says. 'You men are going to be soldiers,' he says, 'and there will be no questioning of any order given you. I want, and I shall have, absolute obedience and discipline,' he says—"


It would be senseless, needless slaughter of the Fourth Platoon. It would enable the rest of the company to take the hill but the premature attack was not necessary; the enemy had their backs to the Pacific and they could retreat no farther. They could retreat no farther and they certainly would not dare attack.

Why had Cullin chosen the Fourth Platoon as the decoy? Was it because of the hatred between himself and Cullin? The Fourth was his platoon; by sending it on a suicide mission Cullin could add the savor of revenge to the sweet taste of glory.

The Fourth was his platoon, and between himself and the men of the Fourth was the bond that months of common danger had welded; the bond of brothers-in-arms that is sometimes greater than that of brothers-by-blood. They did not give his gold second-lieutenant's bars any parade-ground respectful salutes; instead, they respected him as a man, as Blacky who slogged through the mud and rain beside them, who ate the rations they ate, who knew their names and moods, who was one with the hard veterans of combat and the nervous young replacements. Not Lieutenant Knight; just Blacky, to whom someone would sometimes come on the eve of battle and say: "This address here—it's Mary's. If I'm not so lucky this time, I wish you would write her a few words. Just tell her I wanted to see her again but that I . . . well, just say that I said . . . that I said—Aw, hell, Blacky—you'll know what to say."

He would sit by the light of a gasoline lantern in the nights following the battle and write the letters; not alone for the one who had asked him to but for all who had been "not so lucky." They were hard to write, those letters. Soon, now, if he, himself, were not among those not so lucky, he would have more of them to write—far more than ever before.

" . . . What would you say caused it, Blacky?" the sergeant was asking.

"What?" Knight brought his mind back to the present. "How was that?"

"I say, you take a man like Cullin—what do you reckon makes him act that way? You oughta know—you knowed him when you was both kids, didn't you?"

"I've known him most of my life, from the time we were each six years old," Knight answered. "He was always a lot like he is now—even as a kid he wanted to boss the other kids and make them do things for him. I don't know why he hasn't matured emotionally as well as physically. A psychiatrist might be able to trace it back to something—I'm a computer engineer, misplaced in the infantry, and not a psychiatrist."

"Well, if I was one of these psychiatrists, I'd sure ask him if he didn't once have a set of wooden soldiers he liked to play with better than anything else. That's the kind of soldiers he wants us all to be—wooden dummies that don't dare move unless he says to."

They came to the mouth of the gulch and Knight stopped beside a splintered tree. "I have to go over to where he has his headquarters for a last-minute briefing," he told the sergeant. "It's a little over an hour, yet, so everybody might as well take it easy till then. I'll be along in a few minutes."

The sergeant craned his neck to stare past Knight with sudden and baleful interest. "Here he comes now, down from the Second. Guess he's makin' the rounds personally this time." He scowled at the approaching captain then hurried away, his course such that only his long, fast steps prevented a face-to-face meeting.

* * *

Knight waited beside the tree and Captain Cullin strode up to him; a big man, heavier than Knight and almost as tall, with an arrogant impatience to the arch of his nose and a relentless drive in the set of this thick jaw and the iciness of his eyes.

He stopped before Knight, with a glance after the rapidly disappearing sergeant, and said acidly: "If the men in my company could be relied upon to display as much determination when sent on a mission as your sergeant just now displayed to avoid saluting me, I would think I had a first-class combat unit."

"He's a good man—none better," Knight said. "He just didn't happen to feel like going in for any such melodrama as: 'We, who are about to die, salute you!' "

"Very witty," Cullin said coldly. "Although your wit, in its implications, is rather melodramatic, itself. But suppose we talk of something a little more important—the action of your platoon in taking that hill. I've moved the attack up half an hour. The other platoons are already taking up positions as advanced as possible until your own platoon draws the enemy fire."

"I just came down from off the ridge," Knight said. "I know the lay of the land and I have your orders as given to me by Lieutenant Nayland; to attack as best we can along the southwestern floor of the hill and keep the enemy occupied while the other three platoons close in on their flanks. But the strategy is your own, so I'm listening if you have anything to add. From you, I get the dope straight from the horse's mouth."

Cullin stared at Knight, hard lines running along his jaw and the hatred burning deep back in his eyes.

"I want to remind you, Knight," he said at last, "that you are my subordinate officer. An officer's promotions are usually in direct ratio to his ability, and we received our second-lieutenant's bars at the same time—remember? I'm a captain, now, in command of a company; you're still a second lieutenant in charge of a platoon. I'm your commanding officer and you keep that fact in mind at all times. You will restrain your wit, confine yourself to obeying orders and extend me the same courtesy I demand of my other platoon leaders. Is that clear?"

"Very clear," Knight replied. "Your orders have been, and will be, obeyed. When in the presence of others I'll continue to observe every rule of military courtesy, as I have in the past. But I've known you too long and too well to have any desire to go through those antics when you and I are alone."

"Discipline is not an antic," Knight. "The purpose of discipline is to condition the soldier into efficient obedience. You will obey me with full military courtesy and you will not presume an equality with me because of our past friendship."

"Our past friendship is a long way past, and I'm sure neither of us has any desire to ever renew it. I would like to ask you a question, though—why do we attack today when Company B will be up tonight?"

"For a very good reason—because I've ordered it," Cullin said flatly.

"That's all?" Knight asked.

"That's sufficient. It isn't required of you to seek any other reason."

" 'Theirs not to reason why—' . . . that's what you want, isn't it?"

"That's what I intend to have."

"By waiting for B's support you might not win any major's oak leaves but you could save a lot of lives. There's no hurry about taking that hill—the enemy isn't going anywhere."

"Keep your advice to yourself, Knight. Casualties are to be expected in any combat unit and this company will remain a combat unit as long as I am in command of it."

"Then give your orders," Knight said with brittle resignation. "I'll see that they're followed, regardless of what I think of them."

"See that you do. This is what I want out of your platoon, and I won't tolerate any deviation from these orders—"


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