That day we were logging. We were a big danger to the trees; not so much of a danger to the Swarm. Civilians did the logging way back, well away from the aliens. Closer in the regular troops did it, in case a few hungry aliens came calling. Right up next to them it was us: PunCom 11. And what did we have to fight them with? Nothing! We wore these easily recognisable orange uniforms. The idea was that the Swarm would see us as harmless and would leave us alone unless they got hungry. If they did turn up then all we could do was run. At least we had a transporter to run through, but if we weren’t quick enough...
We didn’t even have guards to defend us. Why bother? If we ran away into the forest we’d either starve to death or get eaten by the Swarm. Besides, guards in green with rifles would ruin the harmless orange image we wanted the Swarm to see.
So, there we were; the army of Suvorov the undefeated, the army of Kutuzov, the army of Zhukov and all we had were peashooters! Small tasers, not even stingers, enough to deter wolves, but no use against Swarmtroopers. The point was to be harmless, so hopefully they’d ignore us most of the time. We did kill a lot of trees though.
The tasers sometimes helped with any stray civilians we found. There were still a few wandering round the place, the ones the Swarm hadn’t eaten yet. Mostly they were trying to make their way north to the front line. We helped them on their way with a trip through our transporter up to Novaya Zemlya. The Swarm didn’t like the cold, so the north was still reasonably safe. Safer than the forests further south for sure.
Finding civilians wasn’t as common as finding trees. Cut them down, saw them into logs and send them through the tree-transporter. There’s not a lot to eat in Novaya Zemlya, so we sent them trees. They’ve got Confederacy replicators to turn the logs into food, boots, uniforms and other stuff. There are a lot of civilians up there, as well as Army comrades to feed. Some of the logs went to the moon for the Confederacy people; they needed food, boots and the rest too. That’s how we paid them for the loan of their tech. The other thing was that if we’re eating the trees then the Swarm aren’t. The less food they have the fewer of them there will be to fight later.
The fly-boys did try burning down trees, but we didn’t get to see that. We didn’t want a load of napalm on our heads, so their targets were well away from our logging teams.
It was hard work, and they kept us at it to meet our quota of trees. This wasn’t a picnic: “PunCom” is short for “Punishment Company” after all. Dragging big logs by hand wasn’t easy. All we had was the stuff we could carry by hand through a transporter, no tractors or anything large. The heavy equipment was for the civilian logging teams, well away from the Swarm.
Yuri moved carefully through the trees towards the noise. Someone, or something, was using a chainsaw to cut down trees. It was probably too far away from the aliens’ nest for it to be them, but he needed to check it out to make sure. As he got closer he could hear voices in the intervals when the saw went quiet. Not the aliens then, they didn’t talk.
When he got closer he could see they were men in orange uniforms, not the green camouflage he’d expected. No sign of any rifles either. That was strange. This close to the aliens you needed to be able to defend yourself. He was debating whether to show himself when there was some shouting and one of the men in orange came towards him.
Arkady was on lookout, checking the video feed from the drone overhead. Not a Confederacy drone, just an ordinary drone with infra-red to help see through the trees. The only Confederacy tech we had with us was the transporters, and they were half-crippled. He saw something and called the corporal over. Rumour had it that the corporal had been a Colonel before he joined us – no, we didn’t ask him what had happened. People told you if they wanted to, but you didn’t ask.
I was with Timur, hauling a log to the tree-transporter. It’s not like a normal transporter, it’s a long rectangle – the right shape for a log. We rolled the log onto it, stood back and the log disappeared. Some days we sent them to the north, other days we sent them to the moon. I forget which it was that day. Anyway, Arkady had spotted this guy hanging around. So the corporal shouted at me, “Tsarevich! Go see what that guy wants.”
My name is Dmitri, though nobody calls me that. I’m from Uglich, so everyone calls me Tsarevich. I looked where the corporal was pointing and there was this civilian stepping out from behind a tree. I walked over to him, moving slowly. In Swarm territory everyone was armed – except us – and some of them could be twitchy. This guy seemed OK though.
“Hello, I’m Dmitri,” I greeted him. He looked about fifty, with dirty clothes and a roughly trimmed beard. Thin as well. That was usual, any civilians left down there wouldn’t find much to eat. The Swarm stripped any fields quickly and took away the livestock. Berries, fish and a few squirrels was about it usually. He had a rifle slung on his back, but he wouldn’t want to waste a bullet on the likes of me.
“Yuri,” he replied.
“Are you on your own, or is there a group of you?” We did get a few loners, but most were in groups.
“Can you get us out? There are fifty of us, and some of us are too ill to walk far.”
Fifty! That was big. The largest group we’d seen before was about a dozen. “OK, we can get you all out, but helping that many will need some setting up. I’ll take you to talk to the corporal.” He nodded and followed me.
I left the two of them to talk while I went back to dragging logs.
The talking took longer than I’d expected. Standing orders were to always help civilians, but Yuri’s group was big, the biggest we’d found, so it took more time than usual to set things up.
The corporal called us all together. “Right, men. We have a large group to help, about seven kilometres east of here near the big river. We’ll march over there, send Yuri’s people through and then follow ourselves. Yuri says that some of his people are very ill, so there will be a couple of medics coming through when we reach them.”
That sounded good, at least it was a break from logging. Marching was easier than logging, and no rifle to carry either.
The corporal was still talking, “Put those last two logs through and then send all the logging kit back to base before packing up the personnel transporter. We move in fifteen minutes.”
Officially we were there to cut down trees. Thinking about it, that wasn’t really true. Our real job was helping any civilians still trapped down here. Whenever we found anyone, or they found us, we stopped work and got them out to the north. The logging was just something useful to do while we were waiting for people like Yuri to find us. The civilian logging teams, the ones with the heavy equipment, cut a lot more trees than we did.
Yuri led and the rest of us followed. We stopped every two klicks to put the drone up and check for Swarm. No Swarm, but we did see Yuri’s people by a smaller tributary of the big river. Apparently they used to live in a village up the river. They’d abandoned the village before the Swarm came to attack it and had moved a few klicks down the river. They went back to the village occasionally to pick herbs and see if there was anything useful the Swarm had missed. They hadn’t moved north yet because the remains of the village were still useful and some of their people wouldn’t have survived the long march.
When we got there, they had these caves dug into the riverbank. Better than nothing, but still primitive. We set up our transporter and two medics came through from the north. They brought a medical transporter with them: big enough to take someone laid flat on the ground, about two metres long by one metre. Sick people couldn’t always stand up to use a normal transporter.
While they were doing that, the corporal had Yuri point out where his sickest people were. The two worst were a very pale girl, only semi-conscious, and a guy with a gangrenous leg – it had started to go black and smelled really bad.
Once the medics had set up their transporter, they started looking through Yuri’s people to see who needed to go to hospital first. The rest of us worked at helping them out of the caves for the medics to check. It was nice to see some women around for a change; for us it was always trees or men. One of the medics was a woman as well, which made sense for a group with women in it. I even got to talk to some of the women:
“Come along Granny.”
“That’s Great-granny to you, sonny boy!”
Oh well, at least I tried to be nice to her.
There was even a small pig in its own cave! They said they’d taken chickens with them from the village as well, but they’d already been eaten. The pig was being kept for later – Christmas probably.
As well as women and the pig there were kids, some ill and others running around excitedly. I heard Yakov shouting at some of them to stay away from our transporter.
You get into habits in the army. When you give an order it’s obeyed and you don’t have to keep repeating it or checking on it. The kids weren’t army and, being kids, didn’t always obey orders. Yakov had told them to stay away from our transporter, which of course meant that they were all over it the moment he turned his back. Anything forbidden must be fun – like when I was a kid.
.... There is more of this story ...