Ice Road Convoy, Chapter 3
The rear of the truck thumped down onto the frozen surface of the lake and fish-tailed slightly. The shoreline with it's scattered clumps of evergreen trees began to recede. So this was it, the first of the really big lakes. The convoy had crossed a few small ponds and frozen-over water courses, but this was the first real lake--the first really dangerous body of water. My mind flew back to the briefing that Lieutenant Promethos had given us about the lakes. The lieutenant was a nasty weasel but at least he made a minimal effort to fill us in on anything really necessary. He explained that the first trucks faced the danger of testing the ice, the last ones the danger of going over ice weakened by the previous ones already crossing over it. Even stopping for any length of time was dangerous because the vibrations of the big truck engine could gradually weaken the ice beneath.
The ice out here was mostly free of snow. The winds were somewhat stronger and more constant across the flat open expanse. The darker gray of the surface contrasted with the mixed white and dark green of the shoreline. Above that was the pale blue sky with its few wisps of cloud. I thought about how I would mix those colors on a palette and brush them onto canvas to capture the essence of it all. Despite the trees and hills the landscape was completely uninviting. The brush strokes would have to provide an appropriate texture to convey the soullessness of it.
I'd been thinking about painting again since leaving the camp. When I was first arrested I thought I'd never see a brush again. But the trucks had needed new markings. Imperial Aquila, winged skulls, and other standard imperial logo fare was all it was but it brought back the old desire for expression. To my surprise the Commissar Nourissel actually ordered that I be given extra rations as a reward. At the time I suspected that she would be taking it out of my hide somehow later. The truth proved harsher than that.
In the mess hall that evening as I made my way through the other 'victs with my extra hunk of bread I began to notice the hostile looks. The hardened convict types clearly didn't like to see anyone get any special treatment. I was looking for a table with friendlier faces when someone stepped in front of me. "Quite the little commissar's pet, aren't we?", he sneered. The shaved head and heavy boney jaw complemented the curled lip well. He was a burly type, standing on the rough board floor between the long tables with his arms folded. I wasn't sure what his game was. The body language was one of casual menace, but outright violence here would bring a swift response from the Arbites guards. "Fuck off", I told him, figuring a bit of aggressive bravado was the best response. I was disappointed to see that it fazed him not a whit. Not that I expected him to be intimidated by the likes of me, but I'd hoped it would at least get some reaction. "Maybe she'll have you around to her room later to use that paint brush on your little candy artist ass, eh sweetie?", he whispered loudly. A couple of the criminal trash sitting nearby smirked. "Hah, nice one, Tarko" said someone to my left. "No, I'm not interested in taking your place, Romeo" I shot back. He curled his lip further and his face darkened. Then one of the Arbites announced "Two minutes! Eat up!" I stepped away to sit down and he shot out a boot. I tripped and my meal spilled from the tin mess bowl onto the planking. "Aww, Tarko, now look what you did. The little artist boy dropped his special little ration" mocked one of the scumbags seated nearby. As I started to get up, a boot came down and ground my meagre dinner into the floorboards."You there!" shouted at Arbites guard, "Clean that up!" The guard was pointing at me. Tarko and the other inbred types laughed, enjoying the irony. I scraped up the ruined food into my mess tin and headed for the rubbish bin. Glancing to the side I suddenly made eye contact with the Commissar. She was standing by the door, arms crossed, smiling. It was then that I realized that the commissar had deliberately used my 'reward' to create trouble so she could enjoy the event.
The Commissar smiled to herself. The little scene had indeed provided a bit of amusement, but she'd really been hoping to see the the 'penny' artist wimp get a fist in the face or boot to the groin. But the bad boy types she'd been hoping to bait were too canny to start something with so many guards watching. She'd have to come up with something more provocative to get some real action going. Not only would a good brawl be fun to wade into, but then there would be the floggings afterwards to enjoy.
The sun over the lake gave little warmth, but even that would be enough to weaken the ice. At least it was more warmth than that provided by the so-called heater in the cupola. It was the size of a toaster and gave out about as much heat. The trucks weren't moving particularly fast, but it was enough to add a nasty windchill factor to the already brutal temperatures. I'd secretly torn the cloth bottom off a mattress at the barracks before we'd left and wrapped strips around my legs under my thin jungle fatigues for extra warmth. If they found out it'd mean a vicious flogging, but better that than lose a leg to frostbite. The convoy rumbled on across the nameless lake. The shore was but a dark irregular line in the distance now. The shoreline with its sheltering trees was far, but any real shelter and hope of survival was farther still.
Suddenly the truck slowed. I twisted around in the cupola to look forward and the blast of frigid wind forced tears from my eyes. There were two or three vehicles stopped, the trucks just ahead of ours had swung to the left to go around. Someone was waving us to halt. I recognized the commissar's armored transport next to a truck stopped on the ice, apparently broken down. The figure on the ice, who I recognized as Lieutenant Promethos, walked up and talked with someone in our driver's cab and then motioned for me to come down. "The cab's gone through the ice", he yelled. "Get over there and help with the extraction!"
I climbed down the ladder, grateful for the exercise to warm my chilled body. Walking briskly I quickly came up to the cab of the stricken vehicle. A couple troopers were huddled by the command track in blankets with wet trousers, apparently having escaped the partially submerged cab. Their faces were ashen with the shock of the cold. Another lay face down on the ice, apparently dead from trying to swim out, his sodden uniform already icing over.
"You there, climb out on the rig and pull the pins to detach the cab!" barked the commissar. I headed over, noting that the engine compartment at the front of the cab had been crushed in when it fell through the weak ice. It was a total write-off. The prospect of climbing across the beams of the trailer over the open frigid water to pull the heavy pins was daunting. I pictured myself lying face down like that other poor bastard who'd tried to swim for it. As I took my first step up onto the beam, movement in the cab window caught my eye. There was a pale object in the darkness of the cab--a face. I stopped, chilled to the core. The cab would take whoever it was down to dark, icy death.
"Well, get a move on. Or I'll have you flogged" shouted the commissar, with a hint of anticipation in her voice. I was just turning away when the face pressed against the window and I got a good look at it. It was Tarko, the asshole from the mess hall. I looked quickly over at the two huddled by the command Chimaera. They looked vaguely like some of his trash buddies, although those types all looked alike to me. I climbed out to the pins. Tarko's face appeared at one of the small rear windows. I looked at him expressionlessly. He stared back, grimacing with the cold, probably waist deep in the dark water. The first pin came out easily, the second only after several heaves. Tarko began yelling, a muffled mixture of rage and terror. The cab slid smoothly down into the lake and the dark waters splashed over the back of the cab, Tarko still raging in the little window. I felt some satisfaction at the deed. He'd never be a problem again, for me or anyone else. I straightened and turned, preparing to climb back down. I happened to make eye contact with the two huddled in the blankets, both staring at me with murder in their eyes. "You're dead" one of the mouthed silently across to me.
The commissar ordered the lieutenant to get the trailer hitched doubled up to another truck's trailer. Yes, she thought, it was amusing to watch the 'vict loser thrashing around in his final helpless moments as he went under. She'd spotted the others threatening the artist wimp. If that didn't get some action going soon nothing would.