A/N: Inspired by 'Zero Option', a short story that appeared in Warhammer Monthly No.19. Great story. Consider this an alternative point of view.
Juerig Prime has been blessed by the Emperor with more than ten generations of peace. But accidents happen, and so I found out, as an early teen, that whenever I find myself in danger, my mind retreats to a place I have dubbed the Ice Palace – someplace cold and clear, where I can think without feeling. I stay there, until the crisis is over, and then… I pay the price. The protective shell shatters, and I fall. The feeling is not unlike breaking through literal ice in the middle of a frozen lake.
I turned eighteen less than a year ago and was promptly drafted into the PDF, for the mandatory tour of two years filled with meaningless drills, and another five as reserves, afterwards.
Except that Commissar Holm decided to drop by, not five months into my tour, to refill the gaps in his regiment – 5th Thratian – with new recruits, before moving out to garrison Imperial Outpost 492. Thanks to a name at the wrong end of the alphabet – and a distinct lack of high-reaching connections – I suddenly found myself wearing the flak jacket of the Imperial Guard and on a transport heading for Balanos Alpha.
When the first shock had worn off, we – the recruits from Juerig Prime – considered ourselves lucky and praised the Emperor for His grace. Summers here were a bit hotter than at home and winters colder, and no one had the slightest idea why anyone would want to build – let alone garrison – a fortress in the middle of nowhere, but Balanos wasn't too far away from home and it could have been a lot, lot worse.
The feeling held until a patrol came across what we would later recognize as the first wave of scouts preceding an invasion. I stepped onto the ice and put three shots through the heads of three orks, while the sergeant in charge of the patrol still had his hands full with getting the rest of the men to aim in the right direction. Raw recruits, from a world with no armed conflicts for more than ten generations, remember?
The commissar was pleased to point me out as a model guardsman, afterwards.
Some more experienced guys took exception. I stepped onto the ice, smashed one guy's knee-cap with a well-placed kick, kneed another in the groin hard enough to leave a lasting impression, and so got my hands free and on somebody's gun. The rest of the gang abruptly reassessed their first impressions as somewhat premature and beat a hasty retreat.
This time the commissar gave me a chewing-out in front of the entire regiment. Then he raged for half an hour at the entire regiment that such an incident had taken place, at all. Then he stepped onto my toes and recommended me, quietly, for my close-combat skills.
My reputation as the commissar's pet was pretty much cemented, after that.
Then the supply ship missed its scheduled arrival and the orks came for real. I found myself sliding across the ice for some twenty-four hours straight, in the first assault. Ice both metaphorical and literal, for the first serious blizzard of the season came right at their heels.
The storm proved to be truly neutral in its violence. It swallowed the greenskins' air support in its entirety. It tore off vital parts of our communications array. It added another layer, or twelve, of erraticity to the orks' already mediocre aim, carrying many shells right over the fort or even dropping them back onto their own batteries, when some greenskins, trying to be clever, aimed their weapons straight up. It peeled back all and any building damaged by a lucky, stray hit. The outer walls, designed to withstand storms and heavy weapons fire alike, took little damage in the initial assault, but of the barracks, supply sheds and other buildings within the walls, precious little was left when the storm finally abated.
As I found out, in the aftermath, the longer you stay in the Ice Palace, the harder the fall when it finally shatters. When Holm found me, a few hours into the lull after the first assault, wedged into an out-of-sight recess, shaking and moaning, he really exploded into my face. He shouted at me, he grabbed me by the collar and shook me – the man is a good half a foot taller than me, not counting the cap, and nearly half again as heavy, it was a thorough shake – he very nearly pitched me off the wall. I tried to explain, I tried to tell him about the Ice Palace. I don't think I was very successful. I got dragged, bodily, into the infirmary, though, with a harsh order for the chief medic to check for a head injury, because I was "babbling incoherently."
I took me days to realize that even the commissar had come to see me as his pet.
I owe Holm thrice over, for what he did that night. One, he could – and probably should – have shot me for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Two, the blizzard had dropped temperatures to the point where I would have frozen solid 'til morning – the medic informed the commissar the next day that my head was fine, but I had reached the disorientation stage of hypothermia – and I hadn't been in a state where I would have taken shelter on my own accord. Three, the orks launched an artillery strike a few hours later that turned the section of the breastworks where I had been holed up into a raging inferno.
Another two days and the orks gave up on open assaults and settled for a siege. Rations were halved. Heavy snow and biting winds decided to stay, too, and frost-bite spread like a contagion. For once I was grateful for my stature – or lack thereof – there's plenty of space for extra insulation between me and standard issue boots and armour.
On the fifth night I noticed Tasch, a man sharing my watch, staring at a certain point beyond the wall for an unusual amount of time. I thought he'd spotted something and crept over, to whisper quietly, "What did you see?"
I got no reaction and touched his arm, still got no reaction and gave his arm a short jerk, to alert him of my presence. The frozen body toppled right on top of me. The cold eyes of the dead followed me, ever since.
Days turned into weeks and the dead soon outnumbered the living. When you're starved and half frozen, wounds won't heal, so people died that might otherwise have lived. The Ice Palace started crumbling, granting me sharp splinters of cold clarity and crushing gaps in-between.
While on the ice, I could watch the huge bonfires the orks kept burning day and night, and estimate how far their foragers would have had to spread out into the surrounding mountains, cutting into the great evergreens lining the steep slopes. When the ice ran out, I would smell the roasting flesh intermingled with the aromatic wood smoke and my stomach clenched with both nausea and hunger.
Weeks turned into a month and desperation grew like the snowdrifts along the walls while the last of the supplies were issued. By His grace I had just stepped onto the ice when the less accepting of the survivors came for me, to convince me to use my favoured status and become their spokesperson against the commissar. With the unfeeling clearness of the Ice Palace I could tell them, "No. There is no escape. If it pleases the Emperor to see us live, He will sent us reinforcements soon enough. If not, then we will fall within these walls. There is no way out."
They didn't believe me. Within the hour I could see, from the corner of my eyes, how Jansen and Solvine confronted Holm. If we hadn't been so desperately short of men, he would have shot them, certainly. As it was, I could hear the commissar shout, from halfway across the fortress, "We will do and we will die! That is the way of the Imperial Guard!" before stalking off with an icy fury expressed in every line of his body that made the frozen wastes beyond the walls look cosy by comparison. The sliver of ice had run out, by then, and I was shaking with more than cold at the prospect of coming face-to-face with that fury.
I never did. Holm had just reached the corner of the wall when someone called out to the commissar, pointing into the sky. For a moment I could see nothing but the swirling mass of snowflakes, but then fire appeared, mixed within the ice.
I have never seen a more awe-inspiring or more uplifting sight than those Black Templars dropping from the sky, guns blazing.
They make short work of the cursed greenskins. When there is nothing left before the walls but smoking corpses, Holm summons all men to the gate, to greet the victorious Space Marines with due decorum. It feels completely surreal to have the black-armoured giant offer praise for our actions, after having seen him wade through the army outside like so much scummy water.
Nonetheless, "Your men did well, Commissar," the captain says, "holding the ork forces here long enough for us to counter-strike. It must have taken a lot to keep your men focused."
"We did what we had to do," is the – predictable, but no less truthful – answer.
A rumble of vox-cast from the giant's helmet, and then we hear the words we almost gave up hope to ever hear again. "Transport's on the way. Assemble your troops."
It takes some explaining to clarify that the sad handful of men already assembled is indeed the entirety of the survivors, despite the walls still being lined with armed men. Sometimes Guardsmen serve the Emperor even with their deaths.
The interior of the transport is warm, warmer than I have felt for weeks, and safe to boot, so one by one we succumb to exhaustion.
With fading awareness I hear one of the Space Marines ask, "A curious tactic, to line the walls with the frozen dead to give the appearance of greater strength of numbers, how did you come up with that, Commissar?"
"There's an old tale I heard as a child," Holm replies, "about a fortress high up in the mountains that was completely encased in ice by a freak storm. That fortress held the adjacent pass for years after every soul inside had perished, simply because the guards still lined the walls and their weapons pointed at the route across the pass." There is a short pause, and then the commissar continues, voice curiously softened by approaching sleepiness. "I had completely forgotten about it, until one of my men mentioned an Ice Palace."