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Twilight. An Axis of Time story by Jason Lambright

Posted October 5 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

This is the first of a couple of treats to celebrate the release of Paris – an original story by Jason set deep in the aftermath of the Transition. It's a very personal piece, with none of the loud noises and splodey excess of the books. Because of this, it is better writing.

If you want to check out Jason's own work, his page at Amazon is a great place to start.

And now, to the story. A warning. It is very dark and may disturb some readers.

_________________

Twilight

Jack Edmonston had been dead for ten years, but his body didn’t know it yet. He fumbled at the pack of Luckies on his workbench and tapped out yet another smoke. The fluorescent light in his garage hummed away as he lit the cancer stick and smoked. A dirty blue cloud began to spread beneath the artificial light. Every time he lifted his left hand to take a drag, he saw the tattoo on his arm and wished for the millionth time that he hadn’t have gotten it in that seedy parlor in London during the war, before Calais.

The blackish-bluish tattoo was a slightly blurred Lady Luck, her naked figure was wrapped around a dagger. Above her head was a scroll, and in the scroll was the motto GARRYOWEN.

Jack stubbed out his butt on the workbench and looked around. His sweat caused his white V-neck undershirt to stick to his body, it was a stifling evening in July. He saw his excuse for being in the garage, the family’s newish ’53 Chevy, lurking in front of him with the hood open. He idly recalled that Brits called the hood a bonnet.

When he thought of England, he looked over at the toolbox. Nestled in the top drawer was an M1911, and it called to him. He took a couple of steps and looked down at the killing machine. The .45 auto was a dull greenish-gray with brown Bakelite grips. He could read the stamping on the side without a problem; there was nothing wrong with his eyes. It said ITHACA GUN CO. INC. He knew the weapon was loaded, the hammer was cocked back and the safety was engaged. The weapon meant death.

Jack remembered.

The kraut was saying something, but Jack didn’t know what. The prostrate soldier was lying in a pool of blood in the corner of the room and his legs were twitching. Jack saw the bold eagle with the swastika in its claws on the German’s left sleeve; he saw his spotted uniform. He looked at the kraut’s rifle with its long curved magazine. The weapon had fallen out of the wounded man’s reach. He was no longer a threat.

Jack wrenched himself back to the present. He was still looking at the .45. If he stuck the weapon in his mouth he knew the gun oil would taste bitter on his tongue, the metal would be cold on his lips. All he had to do was pull the trigger. His delayed death would be complete.

He shook his head and walked away from the toolbox. He leaned against his workbench and grabbed the pack of smokes again. He was almost out. Jack figured he’d remind his wife Alice to pick up another carton when he went inside his modest, post-war, single floored, cookie-cutter house. He lit up and contemplated the car again.

Laughter lilted towards him from his home, it was probably his eight-year-old Louise. Like everyone else in his neighborhood of steelworkers, his family was young and growing. On the surface, things seemed to be going fine- America was charging forward into the future, everything was shiny and new.

But if you scratched the surface, storm clouds were gathering. No-one had been happier than Jack when the war ended, he had been convinced back then that he was going to die. When Berlin was nuked and the Germans folded, Charlie Troop had been retrofitting in England. Floods of replacements had arrived and Jack had felt like an old man at nineteen when he saw the waves of conscripts fresh in from the ‘States. He had known then that when the Seventh Cav was plussed up to strength it would be thrown back into the fray.

In the camp outside of Gislingham, England, he had felt like a dead man walking. And then the bombs had fallen on the krauts and he got his reprieve. The atom bomb had saved his life, but now the Russians had plenty of bombs for America and that rotten bastard Stalin was willing to use them.

Jack took the last drag off his smoke and rubbed it out. He hefted his sixth beer. The can of Blatz had gotten a little bit warm, and the beer tasted flat and tinny. He didn’t care, he chugged it down and pitched the can in the trash.

His hands picked up his excuse for being in the garage, away from his family. Jack regarded the blue box and read it. In the box was a new distributor cap for the Chevy. He knew the car didn’t really need it, but old habits died hard. When he was a kid, cars needed a new cap every couple of thousand miles. So he had gone out and bought a new cap just like his father had before him.

There was a circular logo on the box with the letters AC. That logo meant that he had bought a genuine General Motors part. Beneath the logo in the fine print was a list of patents. He read the top one. It said DAVIDSON AUTOMOTIVE ENTERPRIZES MAY 21, 1946, PATENT NO. 341755.

He opened the box, the part inside was shiny black plastic. It wasn’t one of the cruddy Bakelite caps he had grown up with; this one should be good for a hundred thousand miles or so. It was also bigger than the caps from the past. This was one of the new electronic ignition units Chevy had come out with a couple of years ago.

Jack set down the distributor cap and reached into the wire milk crate for another beer. He worked the new style opener and heard the can fizz. He had been in high school when those people from the 21st appeared, and it seemed to him that they had changed everything, down to the humble beer can. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a church-key can, the new lift-tab just worked better.

Had their arrival blessed him, or cursed him? He didn’t know. Jack swigged from the sweaty beer and remembered.

His AT M-4 leapt to his shoulder. The kraut was gibbering. “Bitte! Bitte nicht schiessen, kamerad!” As soon as his sights lined up, Jack pulled the trigger. As always, he heard the spring in the stock twang, he felt the slight recoil against his shoulder and nose. Funny enough, he didn’t hear the report of his weapon, but he heard the dull clang of the bullet on the back of the kraut’s helmet. Jack had shot the man in the face.

In the present, Jack took another long swig of his beer. Sometimes the alcohol helped dull his thoughts, but this looked like one of those evenings when his ghosts would chase him, the dead to whom he owed a life. His life.

Jack looked back over at the toolbox, where eternity waited. His sweat ran cold.

During the day it wasn’t so bad. He would get up at six, and Alice would be waiting on him with a hot breakfast and coffee. Sometimes there were bags under her pretty, bloodshot eyes. The couple had taken to sleeping in separate beds because of some unfortunate nocturnal incidents with Jack. He would thrash about at times, and once he had woken up with his hand around his wife’s throat. Separate sleeping arrangements were called for after that occasion.

He would eat his meal, drink a few cups and chain-smoke. Jack left before the kids got up. Alice would kiss him when he went out of the door in his mill greens. The smoking, noisy steel mill was his destination. He worked as a millwright in the new continuous caster, another technological leap forward from the future. He kept busy all day long doing his bit in America’s production of steel.

And keeping busy was important. It seemed odd, but his favorite time of the day was going to work and losing himself in the mill, the eight hours of his shift would pass like magic. While he was wrestling with machines in the moly-grease pits at work he didn’t think about the war. Only in the quiet hours would the thoughts surface, especially at night after the kids had been put to sleep.

Sometimes the alcohol helped. He would drink enough to get sleepy, and then he would sleep deep, black sleep. Those nights were the best. On other nights he couldn’t sleep at all, or his sleep would be light and fitful and he would be tormented by dreams, dreams of the man he hadn’t needed to kill.

Jack decided at that moment that he had to work on the car; he needed to stay busy. He had been putting up with the war for ten years; he had come up with strategies to avoid his ghosts. He threw beer number seven away and picked up the distributor cap and made uneven progress towards the car. He looked down at the engine.

The Stovebolt Six’s basic design was almost twenty years old. On casual examination it had changed little since the thirties. However, there were some big differences. On the intake manifold on the left side of the engine was one of Chevy’s new throttle body injectors, it gave the “Thriftmaster” unbelievable fuel mileage. And sticking out of the side of the motor was the object of Jack’s attention, the distributor. He needed a screwdriver to get the old cap off. He fished out yet another smoke, lit it, and turned to go to the toolbox.

He glanced at the pistol, shook his head unconsciously, and opened a drawer and got the tool. He went back to the car and got to work.

Jack was amazed again by the swell stuff the 21st people had brought with them, the new automotive electronics made it so his car started the first time, every time. That hadn’t been the case before the war. He unplugged the module from the top of the distributor cap, laid it to the side, and removed the cap and wires. He reached over to the car’s fender and grabbed the brand-new unit, settled it into place, carefully replaced the wires in firing order and plugged the ignition module back in. He tightened the two screws on the side of the cap, and presto, he was done.

There was nothing else to do. No points to file or adjust, nothing. The car was ready to go. Jack walked around the side, opened the door, and climbed behind the wheel. He regarded the busy chrome and steel interior for a second, and hit the ignition. The motor purred to life.

Jack was feeling his buzz. He decided to listen to something. He turned on the radio and music started to play immediately. There was no slow increase in volume like there had been with the old tube units, in ’49 Chevy had started using transistor models. Listening to Elvis, Jack decided that not everything about the 21st crowd was bad.

He switched off the engine but left the radio on. Jack wanted some music with his beer. He walked back over to the workbench and got number eight. He popped it open and took a long drink. He sat the can down and shook out his last smoke. His hand trembled slightly as he lit the sweet-smelling Lucky.

The cap change had gone too easily. Jack was left alone with his biggest enemy, himself. He took another swig and the garage started to rotate slightly. Maybe tonight he would fall asleep like a stone and dream no dreams. Damn the new technology, it made his busywork too short.

Jack burped, lifted his cigarette and took a drag. He glanced at Lady Luck and thought about all the things that had come into the world with the newcomers and their battle fleet. His M-4 had been one of those things. He remembered the first time he had hefted W484184 in basic, he felt like he was holding a Buck Rogers death-ray gun.

He grew to know that rifle as if it were his own right arm. And he had killed with it.

The German’s body slumped and a new pool of blood started spreading in a pool behind his head. Jack lowered his rifle. He heard a voice behind him. “Friendlies coming in!” Automatically, Jack answered with “Clear!” Bezak, a corporal from his squad, came up behind Jack, glanced at the dead kraut, and spoke. “Hey Jack, hold tight here for a while, we’re getting held up by those fuckers with the gun on the other side of the street.” Jack heard the roar of an MG-42. Bezak turned and left, leaving Jack with the man he had killed.

The man he didn’t have to kill.

Back in the present, Jack remembered every detail of the German’s face. The dead man had sandy brown hair, freckles, fine lips and a black hole above his right eyebrow. Jack had ruined the fellow, a child of God, and he was destined for hell.

He couldn’t stand it any more. With “Suspicious Minds” playing in the background, Jack walked towards his toolbox as if he was in a dream. He reached into the toolbox and lifted out the heavy chunk of steel that waited there like a snake.

There was something Jack could do to atone for his deeds. That German had been the first, but it hadn’t been his last.

Outside of the garage, the sun was setting over the hills, and the evening insects had begun their peaceful chant. Elvis finished his song.

Jack’s right thumb flicked off the safety, the .45 was ready to fire. He reversed his grip on the pistol so that it pointed backwards, with his thumb on the trigger. With a jerk, he brought the pistol up to his face. He looked down the barrel. The bore loomed as large as a sewer pipe in his field of view. He opened his mouth and stuck the barrel of the pistol between his teeth. The weapon’s oil tasted bitter indeed, he could smell the stink of old gunpowder. His thumb tightened on the trigger, he felt the heavy resistance of the spring in the firing mechanism. A single tear rolled down his cheek.

Bitte nicht schiessen.

27 Responses to ‘Twilight. An Axis of Time story by Jason Lambright’

Murphy_of_Missouri mutters...

Posted October 5
Well, we're not pulling any punches with this piece.


Obviously, we have some gritty detail here with our main character. All too easy to see my Dad in this shop working on his car. The smoke, the grease in the shop, music playing in the background. No beer though, Mom requires that Dad go get drunk outside of the house.


We've got our flashes of combat too,


It is a story you want to like, or I want to at any rate. All too often I find myself reading nothing but collections of cliches tossed about by hacks. And yet, well written as it is, I don't for one simple reason.


It is the ending.


This story couldn't end any other way, I might add. I wouldn't change it, can't change it. It resonates with the current rash of veteran suicides in our present day society. But as someone who spent a fair bit of his own post military life traveling through some dark valleys and pondering oblivion, I must admit I wish this guy had found the same truth I have in life.


You might think that it is never going to get better, but if you eat a bullet, you'll never know what the next day will bring.


To be honest, I would have rather have read that story, instead of this one.


This is a great piece of writing. When I'm not neck deep in writing lecture notes for Modern Western Civilization I will have to look up your other works.


Respects,
Murph
On the Outer Marches

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insomniac ducks in to say...

Posted October 5
Agree that it is good writing. I haven't read much of Jason's work as it gets a bit too much for me, and I'm not a soldier or been in combat, so I don't know how the rest of you manage. Throwing in the kid part way through should/could have steered the story another way.

Finally, I don't mean to be picky but your patent number is way off. I understand the Davidson reference but it would be nice if the rest was closer to the truth, apart from the whole "would the intellectual property system be fucked in the alt timeline" argument.

Murphy_of_Missouri mumbles...

Posted October 5
I thought the combat snippets were fairly well restrained and artfully placed. As I said before, it was all too easy to imagine my father puttering in a similar manner in the very basement where I have my workshop. The only three omissions in my father's life would have been the beer, the forty-five, and the finale.


People who chose to be soldiers rarely understand what they are in for, even if they serve during peacetime. You endure it because you have no real choice other than to endure. That part for many is easy.


The hard part for some, it seems, is to endure the victory that follows. Or defeat as the case may be.

insomniac mutters...

Posted October 6
I was talking more about his first book, which it seems you haven't read yet.

Murphy_of_Missouri has opinions thus...

Posted October 6
I read the first Stalin in Beta.

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Bondiboy66 is gonna tell you...

Posted October 5
A well written story can provoke strong emotion in the reader....like what I'm feeling right now...

Murphy_of_Missouri mumbles...

Posted October 5
Agreed.

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George Fripley has opinions thus...

Posted October 5
I love a good story no matter what the genre, and this held me all the way through. The interspersing of flashbacks with the story starts building the dread early and like a train wreck you just have to keep watching until the final conclusion that you hope is not what you think it may be.

Great bit of writing. Thanks for posting this. I'm going to chase up more from Jason

George

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jl ducks in to say...

Posted October 6
Thanks to everyone for considering my work- it is a tribute to both JB's wonderfully rich universe and the hidden casualties of combat trauma.

Alister Taylor asserts...

Posted October 6
Man, that was seriously, seriously good.

Very tight, very easy to imagine in the mind's eye both elements of it, and the conflict is just great. Leaves one wanting more of the backstory, and everything about the guy!

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Turlogh Dubh O'Brien puts forth...

Posted October 6
Wow. I read it and I finished it and I spent the next 7 minutes just staring at the screen. That's how gripping it was. Too honest, too brutal and too real. As a grandson of WW II vets, it sometimes saddens me and sometimes amuses me when teenagers (and those who are mentally still teenagers) think war is like some video game where you respawn and pick up weapons and provisions off a dead Stormtrooper-type enemy. The casualties go deeper than the glamor of victory. Well done, sir. Well done.

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Peter Bradley mumbles...

Posted October 6
Interesting the normally verbose Burgers appear to have been struck dumb by the power and outright brutality of the fantastic piece. I have spent the last 24 hours trying to describe it. The only phrase that seems to resonate is "gut wrenching" . Mr Lambright if this is indicative of your work I will be seeking it out.

Dave W ducks in to say...

Posted October 6
You are correct sir.

DaveC would have you know...

Posted October 6
Yhup. Verbosity diminished. Beautiful, terrible, with insightful imagery. Good writers are shin-kickers, through laughter or tears or excitement. Consider me kicked. Kudos to those who've served, but feeling like a preeeeety lucky mofo that to me, war is just an abstract noun.

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DarrenBloomfield ducks in to say...

Posted October 6
I've found myself mesmerised by Jason's stuff - the micro-fine detail that somehow simultaneously tells us something near-universal.

My 'review' would be almost as all above. But Murph's hits me hard. I wanted him to live too Murph, if for far less personal reasons than you. I wanted it so much, that my mind's eye ended the story the way you wished it would/could - he relaxes the trigger pull, and fights on, for one more day (or at least one more beer).

I think Jason, who writes with such detail, left us enough at the end to hope for that,,,

Murphy_of_Missouri has opinions thus...

Posted October 6
Yeah . . . pretty sure he shot himself.


sally lambright swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 7
r u sure? after reading it at least 3 times and finally asking what "Bitte nicht schiessen" meant. (please don't shoot) I am not so sure. It gave this Mom a little hope. That's all. Just a little. Everyone can make up their own mind.

Murphy_of_Missouri asserts...

Posted October 7
You don't have a gun in a story unless you are going to use it. He shot himself. I'm sure of it.


Then again, only the author knows for sure.

insomniac puts forth...

Posted October 7
The German says Please don't shoot and he shot him. He shot himself for sure.
If it was "Bitte nicht schiessen Papi" then perhaps not.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon mutters...

Posted October 7
i also think he went through with it but it does say early on he knew it would taste bitter and be cold on his lips (i take that as meaning he's been through this a number of times before - hence why it is always kept so handy) . . . . maybe, just maybe, he has some more to go through.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted October 7
I thought it was a very good piece of writing. It wasn't neither overblown nor barren. Having read his two "Valley" books ( waiting for the 3rd) this short story shows a writer showing his chops across forms.

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Stephen M. Stirling is gonna tell you...

Posted October 9
I grew up around WWII vets -- my Dad, for starters -- and most of them, when they got to talking, didn't have much problem with the killing thing at all.

Eg., one (close relative) had been the BAR man in his squad, so he got to handle prisoners.

(Talking about Germans who surrendered in ones and twos, up at the sharp end; formed units were safe if they gave up formally.)

He explained that his unit, like all the others, had two sets of orders for prisoners: "Take them back to the trucks" when there was time to spare to do that, and "Take them down to the end of the road", when there wasn't, which had an unspoken codicil: "and shoot them".

As Bill Maudlin noted at the time, giving up individually was very dangerous, even when both sides' high commands were making a good-faith effort to abide by the rules. There was about a 50-50 chance of getting shot between the time you put your hands up and getting back to the rear echelon where you were fairly safe. This wasn't admitted publicly but everyone knew it.

My relative did both quite a few times. As he put it, it was nothing personal, just doing the job, and it didn't bother him much. He did say he always tried to shoot them in the back without warning, so they wouldn't know it was coming, because "they were just another bunch of poor bastards like us, doing what they were told and trying to stay alive".

Not that he didn't have nightmares occasionally, but it wasn't about that. It was about his friends getting killed, since by the end of the war (near PIlsen, for him) only seven of his original platoon were left -- he came ashore in Normandy on D+2.

Or the close calls he'd had personally; he was wounded twice. The one that really woke him up sweating was remembering being in his foxhole in the Ardennes and feeling the ground shake as the German armor came down the road.

jl is gonna tell you...

Posted October 10
Yeah, combat trauma strikes everyone differently. I agree, some people can handle killing with complete indifference. I've known my share of those guys, both in my childhood and my old line of work.

Others I have known can not. They tend not to live to be old, they get involved with substance abuse and other destructive behaviors. I have known those men as well.

All wars breed both types, and we as a society are indebted to those "who shall have borne the battle".

Murphy_of_Missouri mutters...

Posted October 10
We drove by no end of dead Iraqis during Desert Storm. Or in the case of 1st Infantry Division, over them, buried by our armored bulldozers.


That certainly explained the early absence of corpses, that they were buried in the trenches because General Rhames decided he wasn't having a replay of trench warfare ala 1916 and good for him. He was damned for that, just as surely as General McCaffrey of the 24th Infantry Division was damned a few days later.


We also drove by more than a few who had surrendered. I felt bad for them.


We also found some wallets from the dead, containing the same things we might have in our wallets.


I didn't have nightmares about the Iraqis. Or the refugees we encountered later at Safwan. If I had nightmares, they tended to revolve around where my weapon had gotten to after sleeping with it by my side for five months. Or other things I won't get into here.


And from 23 to 34, I certainly had a passing thought about flipping the switch and checking out. Or opting out. If I had, I'm sure some idiot would have blamed it on the war. That I haven't, I'm sure, some idiot will credit it to something else.


Anyway, I didn't check out because I always wondered, as bad as things were, what the next day would bring. Besides, if I blew the back of my skull off, I'd prove a lot of people who don't know a thing about the military correct.


The war got him.


One final thing. I've not followed it too closely but my understanding from the current research is that our twenty two a day who are killing themselves are not, I say again, not, generally combat arms types. They tend to be support types, or people who never deployed at all.


I can't quite figure out how to reconcile that in my mind. The stereotype is that the combat veteran is the one who is going to eat their forty-five or their nine, not the guy in charge of toilet paper.


And that doesn't even get into suicides brought on by sexual assault, which is an entirely different ball of wax to ponder.

jl would have you know...

Posted October 11
Hey Murph, thank you for the thoughtful and personal response. It demands a careful and considered reply.

Like you, I am a combat veteran. My most intense experiences came in the mountains of Afghanistan, where I served as an advisor to 2nd Rifle Company, 3/2 BDE, 209th ANA Corps. I was medically retired from the Army as a direct result of my experiences there in dismounted combat.

I am currently (and for the foreseeable future) a patient at the VA, and one of the areas I visit is the combat trauma wing in the hospital. The suffering on display there is visceral, silent, and involves veterans from the Second World War to present.

I wrote this piece with both my own experiences in mind and the men and women I have known who fought and paid a price.

Murphy_of_Missouri mutters...

Posted October 11
Time spent at the VA for any veteran would be worthy of a forty-five caliber lunch after bourbons to brace one to the task. I've certainly spent my time in waiting areas with them.


I'd say you saw some nasty terrain, as well as a lot of nasty shit. That definitely marks a person, for better, and for worse.


Best of luck struggling with the demons, brother. I think you'll find that for the most part, folks at the Burger, they are here for you.

jl would have you know...

Posted October 12
Thanks, Murph. We all do what we can to get by. Me, I write. Currently working on "Immolation", the third book in the Valley trilogy.

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