Ice Road Convoy, Chapter 2
I gripped the handles of the heavy bolter, both hands frozen in the thin leather gloves which all the 'victs wore here. The huge truck bumped and rattled across the snow-covered landscape. The sound of the near-constant wind competed with the low growl of the truck's engine. The convoy was passing through a relatively flat, wide frozen river bed with low bluffs about a hundred meters to either side. The commissar had called these bits of land between the frozen lakes "portages". However, most of the run would be on the icy surface of the many wide lakes left here by a massive planetary bombardment ages ago. There was no danger of falling through the ice here, but a higher chance of ambush since the terrain of the portages offered concealment and cover for attackers. There were only two vehicles after mine in the convoy: another tractor-trailer loaded with food and a standard Chimaera armored personnel carrier covering the rear. My own truck had a load of light ammunition: grenades, bolter shells, and the like. The truck ahead was a real death trap: a tanker loaded with 30,000 litres of promethium fuel. I felt oddly relieved to be on a truck with ammunition over one with highly explosive fuel, even if it meant that I had to man the open gun cupola on the back of the trailer.
The danger was perhaps worth it. The commissar had explained before they set out that this was no ordinary penal unit. The sector governor had selected certain 'victs to form a new type of unit called a Penitant Legion. That explained why the unit wasn't a pack of vicious murdering bastard types--well, not all of them anyway. Of course the commissar had immediately taken to mocking them by calling every one "penny" instead of " 'vict". It also helped explain why there was an old granny sitting in the cab of the truck. I'd seen the ganger tattoos on her arms and wondered how she'd survived more than a minute in dog-eat-dog world of the hive gangers. Apparently she'd gotten them to show support for a favorite grandson who'd gone ganger. She refused to rat him out to the Arbites and ended up here. Unlike penal legions, penitant legionaries could be released into a normal Imperial Guard unit after a number of missions or years of suitably arduous and meritorious service. In this case it would be just 20 supply runs out and back--unless they were lying.
The truck slowed as it headed up a slight rise and I could hear gears grinding. Noran, the driver began whining again about how unfair it was that he had to do a job he wasn't properly qualified. "I don't see how I can be expected to manage without any training and no one here to help me!", Noran went on in his obnoxious nasal tone. Word was Noran had been some sort of upper level Adminstrorum functionary who'd gotten himself accustomed to far too many unofficial perks. He seemed to think he was entitled to perks even in the barracks--until the other 'victs finally decided he was entitled to a beating in the shower. That hadn't brought down his inflated sense of importance much, however. Noran's voice continued to crackle from the intervox into the crew's headsets. Irritated, I let go of one of the weapon grips and glared back uselessly over my shoulder at the tractor cab. The line of trucks at the front of the convoy was visible ahead as bulky gray shapes in clouds of snow kicked up as they passed. The portage would eventually end in another flat expanse of ice-covered lake. I looked up at the sky, blue with only a few wisps of cloud. Then another wisp caught my eye, a lazy spiral looping down from the bluff on the right. Fear gripped my chest and I yelled out "Grenade!", recognizing too late the trail of a grenade launcher round arcing down into the tanker ahead of us.
The prometheum went up in a massive blast of orange and black. The poor bastard in the gun cupola on the end was blown out and landed in the convoy tracks, clothes aflame. Noran slammed on the brakes and the tractor-trailer immediately jack-knifed. I stared in horror for a moment as the trailer swung to the right and started to slide sideways towards the blazing inferno of spilled fuel: tons of ammunition headed for a fire plenty big enough to set the whole damned planet off. As the trailer leaned precariously and bumped and shuddered over the rough ground I crouched in the cupola and braced for whatever might come. After several moments of pure terror, the trailer slowed to a stop and settled upright. I peered over the side, both hands gripping the metal rail. The burning tanker was little more than 25 meters away. I saw the burning man, now a blackened, smoking figure outlined against the snow, roll slowly over onto one side. "Stop, drop, and roll", I mouthed to myself. They'd taught us all that back in school for what to do if your clothes caught on fire. I wondered if the victim was trying to roll or just struggling in agony. I felt a flash of anger at Noran's idiotic panic braking that could have killed everyone aboard. I was about to get out and help the smoldering casualty when a series of loud noises brought my attention back to the rear of the convoy.
Scattered groups of orks were running down from their hiding places on the bluff on the right flank of the convoy. They were waving huge crude blades and firing an assortment of loud, oversized firearms. The Chimaera had opened up on them, as had the gunners on the truck behind ours. A group of half a dozen orks were headed straight for my truck. I grabbed the firing grips and dragged the big weapon around to open fire. I could only move the heavy bolter with difficulty but brought it to bear and pressed the firing lever. A stream of shells flew over the heads of the charging orks and tore up the bluff behind them. I struggled to aim and move the bulky weapon to keep it trained on them--years of putting paintbrush to canvas hadn't really prepared me for this. It was only the second time I'd ever fired it. The commissar had only allowed a single training session--she didn't want anyone "wasting ammunition" before the mission. Nevertheless, by keeping the firing level down and correcting my aim I brought down one, then two more together, and then a third and a fourth. I had just about brought the line of tracers down onto the last one when the firing abruptly stopped. A piece of metal spat out of the side of the heavy bolter with a loud clang--the end-of-belt piece. Surprised, I looked wildly around for another ammo belt. The ork was only 20 meters away, roaring alien gibberish as he rushed in with a huge rusty cleaver.
Fear rising in my chest, I grabbed another belt of shells, then dropped it and pulled out the small stub pistol I'd been issued as a side arm. I was about to open fire at the huge monstrosity, when someone off to the left shouted and a lasrifle bolt flashed by, nicking the ork on the arm. It roared with pain and, enraged, changed direction and headed towards the source of the bolt. I leaned over the side of the cupola and began firing. Some shots went wide, others hit. I was shocked at how small the impacts looked on the creature's huge frame. Another laser bolt, then another came from up near the cab, one hitting the ork in the abdomen. I kept firing, getting it several times on its bare, scarred head. Finally, the brutish alien stumbled and fell to its knees. Letting out a low growl it collapsed face down on the frozen dirt.
"It's stuck! I can't get this thing to move. How can anyone of my background and breeding be expected to understand this sort of mechanical nonsense!" Noran bleated petulantly over the intervox, clearly out of his depth. That was it; I'd had it with the useless, whining weasel. First he almost kills everyone jack-knifing the truck and now he's just sitting there while we're under attack. I knocked the earphones off his head and scrambled down the metal rungs to the ground. Landing heavily, I twisted my ankle but started past the ork carcass towards the cab.
Mordaur was standing there by the open door of the tractor cab with a lasrifle in his hands. He looked tired, as he always did. His large frame looked even bigger in the military greatcoat he'd found somewhere. His arms hung down slackly as though weighed down by the weight of the rifle. As I drew nearer I saw that he was pale under his dark complexion, pale with fear, although he otherwise appeared calm. "Are you okay?", I shouted. He turned his head slowly and said "It'll be all right." He said that a lot, half to himself, as though he was quietly reassuring himself about something.
I clambered up the side of the armored cab and lunged through the open door. Nanny Tauriston sat in the passenger seat with a large toolbox on her lap. She had been assigned as mechanic on the truck even though she'd probably never turned a bolt in her life. Typical penal battalion personnel management. Noran had started in demanding help from another truck in his typical whining petulant way. I grabbed the microphone and said "Give me that you idiot!" Surprised and outraged he clung to it and we struggled for a moment before I was able to wrench it from his grasp. "Give it back!" he demanded. I began hitting him with it, shouting "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" in time with the blows. The plastic microphone casing cracked in my hand as Noran cowered in his seat shielding himself from my frenzy. I felt a pair of large hands on my shoulders. "It'll be all right" said a familiar voice, "It'll be all right, you'll see". The rage drained and I dropped the busted microphone. "Just get the truck moving before the damned orks kill us all" I said, and headed back to the cupola.
I had only gone a few steps, feet crunching in the snow, when I remembered the 'vict thrown from the back of the tanker. I ran over to the prostrate form which still smoked slightly. The face was charred and bloody, but I heard a low moan as I turned the body over. The bulky winter clothing had protected most of the body, the only obvious burns being on the exposed facial areas. Despite the damage from the flames I thought I recognized Dorra, from one of the other platoons. A plump woman of moderate height, 30-ish, with very short dark hair. A bit coarse of manner I'd thought, but not obviously evil or criminal. I dragged her back to our truck and we laid her on the wide crew seat at the back of the cab. Medical attention would have to wait, but at least she was safe now from the cold and any surviving attackers.
I awkwardly reloaded the heavy bolter as Noran maneuvered the truck and got us moving. The truck and Chimaera behind us had already moved on past while we dealt with our situation, leaving us last in line now. As we moved out, I looked back and watched as the burned out tanker and scattering of corpses receded into the distance. It wasn't even the end of the first day of the run yet.