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.
This close to the Swarm all our transporters had a self destruct, and of course one of the kids triggered it! A scream, a burned hand and a pile of slag that had been a transporter. Not a huge emergency since we still had the medical transporter to get ourselves out. There was a problem though: the medical transporter was locked on a Confederacy base in the moon.
Like with the self-destruct, this close to the Swarm they’d crippled our transporters. They were like a radio tuned to a single station that couldn’t be retuned. The Confederacy had locked our dead transporter on our camp in the north. They’d locked the medical transporter on a hospital in the moon. Because Yuri’s group was so big, we were sending them to the moon, not to the north. Confederacy medical tubes were scarce on the ground and mostly reserved for the Army. There were a lot more tubes in the moon, enough to treat fifty civilians.
While the corporal was talking on the radio, we got the rest of the civilians out. By the time the kid blew up our personnel transporter all the serious cases were through. The worst one was the kid with the burned hand! Everyone left, including Great-granny, could walk through. One of the women led the pig, which seemed used to her. The two medics went through last; they were allowed to go back via the moon.
Regiment didn’t want us lot from PunCom 11 going to the moon, so we had to wait for them to fly a replacement transporter down to us. The medical transporter was no help with that since it was one-way only, to evacuate casualties. That was another way they crippled our transporters, making some of them one way only. Our tree-transporters were like that as well: send only, no receive. We kept the medical transporter set up though, in case the Swarm arrived before our replacement.
Typically, the aliens showed at the most inconvenient time. Pyotr was on the drone scan and yelled that there was something big moving up the near bank of the big river from the south. From the south had to mean the Swarm. We didn’t know if they were going to turn up our side branch and we certainly weren’t going to hang about to see.
The corporal had to do some shouting down the radio, but we got permission. There wasn’t really any other option. We couldn’t do them any damage, all we could do was increase their food stocks by so many kilos of meat.
We all went through quickly, with the corporal last. He’s good like that, made sure the rest of us were OK. I didn’t see it, but he set the self-destruct on the transporter before leaving: if it was active you got up to twenty seconds to go through yourself before it blew. I’d never been to the moon before, so this was all going to be new to me.
I emerged into an argument. Four giant Confederacy Marines in green were glaring at our guys. Their sergeant wanted us to drop our tasers and we weren’t going to do that without orders. At least he was speaking Russian and not English. Most of us can’t speak much English. I only know one word: ‘restorant’, and that’s because it’s the same as the Russian, with that ‘t’ added at the end.
The corporal came through last and quietened our guys down. He had a short talk with the Marine sergeant and told us to give our tasers to a concubine who had appeared from somewhere. Long black hair, big tits, legs all the way down to the ground and hardly wearing anything at all. I could see why guys were eager to volunteer for the Confederacy with girls like her around.
An ordinary size guy in a blue uniform took us through another transporter to a waiting room. He showed us where to get food and told us to wait. We waited. The food was good, though the tea would have been better properly made from a samovar.
Next a doctor in a white coat came in to talk to the corporal. Before we went back down, we were all going to get a quick medical check, courtesy of the Confederacy.
“Arkady, you go first,” the corporal said. “They’ll need longer with you to fix your shoulder.”
“You’ll fix my shoulder?” he asked the doctor. Arkady’s shoulder hadn’t been right since a falling tree knocked him sideways and busted something.
“Sure. It’ll be good as new.”
“Great,” he smiled and followed the doctor.
Pavel was next, and he was back before Arkady. Then me, “Tsarevich, you’re next,” the corporal said.
As we were walking the doctor asked, “Is Tsarevich your real name?”
“No, I’m Dmitri, but everyone calls me Tsarevich.”
“Tsarevich, Dmitri. Don’t tell me you’re from Uglich,” he asked.
“Got it in one,” I told him. He laughed at that; a lot of people do.
Medical was white with these big metal tubes, most closed and a few open. He took me to an open one. “Strip and get in,” he told me.
“Don’t you want to ask what’s wrong with me?”
“No need. The tube does its own diagnosis.” I fell asleep as he closed the lid on me.
Yuri saw light through his closed eyes and opened them. The nurse looked down at him, “Get out of the tube and get dressed, sir.”
His old clothes had disappeared while he’d been treated. Just as well, they were getting ragged in places and probably smelled a bit. Instead there was a set of new grey coveralls, which he put on.
Grigory and Vladimir were waiting nearby, sitting on a bench and both in similar grey coveralls. “They want us to wait until Elena is finished,” Vladimir told Yuri.
“Any idea why?”
“The nurse said something about only explaining things once, rather than four times.”
“Looks like we wait then.” Yuri did feel better, and the ache in his calf from a pulled muscle was gone, like the nurse had promised.
The nurse came back, leading Elena. Yuri thought the grey coveralls looked a lot better on her than they did on the men. The nurse left and a woman in a blue uniform arrived. “Hello, I’m Tamara. Come with me please.”
She led the four of them to a room with a big table and ten chairs. “The doctor said you were all half-starved, so I’ll get you something to eat.” Yuri perked up. She was right, food was difficult to find in the forest and he was definitely hungry. “She also said to give you small portions and not too rich. Too much or too rich means you might just bring it all up again.”
“No caviar then,” Vladimir joked.
A new voice startled them, “Sturgeon roe is medically contraindicated at this time.”
“That was a Confederacy computer,” Tamara explained to the startled foursome. “They sometimes take things far too literally. We do have caviar if you decide to stay with us.”
“Stay?” Yuri asked.
“Food first.” She went to a cupboard and got out four plates of bread and cheese, with hardly any cheese. “Don’t eat these too fast. We can let you have more when you’ve had a chance to digest them.” She returned to the cupboard and came back with five glasses of water on a tray. She passed four out to her guests and took the last one for herself.
The bread and cheese disappeared quickly. “Do you all know what a CAP test is?” Tamara asked.
“You test people to see who will be masters and who will be slaves, don’t you?” Elena replied.
“We call them sponsors and concubines, but that’s right. We’ve tested all the people in your group, including estimates for the older children, and you four are sponsors: masters if you like.”
“What about the others?” Yuri asked.
“They all scored lower than you, so they aren’t sponsors.”
“So that’s good for us, but not so good for them?” Grigory confirmed. Tamara nodded.
“What did you mean about us staying?” Yuri asked. “Won’t you send us back to Russia?”
“If you want to stay with us, we’ll accept you as a Confederacy sponsor and send you to one of our colonies to help fight the Swarm. Otherwise we’ll send you back to Russia to fight them there. Wherever you go, you’ll be fighting the Swarm.”
“What about the others? The sla ... concubines?” Elena asked.
“We’ll offer some of them a choice as well, though not all of them. If you want, you four can pick concubines from your own group. You already know them, which is good. Picking from a bunch of strangers can be hit-and-miss.”
“We each get two concubines, don’t we?” Grigory asked.
“Elena gets four,” Tamara told him. “She scored highest. You three men get two each. Together you can get ten of your friends and their children off Earth and further from the Swarm.”
“I’m not going,” Yuri declared. “I want to stay and fight for Russia.” He looked at Tamara, daring her to contradict him.
“So, one of you wants to stay.” She wasn’t going to argue with Yuri over his choice; the Confederacy wanted volunteers, not conscripts. If he went back then he would still be fighting the Swarm with the Russian army. Fighting on Earth would help delay the Swarm’s arrival at the other human colonies in space. “What about you, Vladimir?”
The other three decided to join the Confederacy.
“Right. Next is for you to select your concubines. I assume that you want to pick from your own group first?” They did. “Do you want to join us, Yuri? You won’t be able to pick anyone, but some of them will be going back to Russia and you can go with them.”
As she took them to rejoin their group, she explained. “Your concubines will be having lots of babies, so you’ll each need to pick at least one good mother to help look after them. Elena, you’ll need a man as well, to make those babies. If he’s a good father that will help. It’s an advantage that you already know your own people, and aren’t picking from a group of strangers.”
“What about the children?” Elena asked.