Vor the playback war, p.1
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       Vor: The Playback War, p.1


Vor: The Playback War


  GROWLERS

  Screaming, Piotr pointed his Uzi straight at the thing and blasted it with a hail of lead, oblivious to the bullets that were also pulping his own foot. Alexi brought his own weapon to bear—and only under the combined firepower of assault rifle and submachine gun did the thing finally release its hold. It scuttled away under a bank of cryotanks, leaving a smear of steaming ichor on the floor. Four of the glass-walled cryotanks cracked open at once, spilling infant growlers onto the floor. Landing on their apelike feet, they immediately bounded for Piotr. Three of them sank slavering teeth into the wounded soldier, chewing gaping holes in his sides. The fourth clamped its jaws onto Piotr’s face, cutting off his scream.

  Alexi’s mind was filled with a single thought that kept repeating itself.

  Not again. Oh Christ, not again . . .

  VOR: THE MAELSTROM

  Vor: Into the Maelstrom

  by Loren L. Coleman

  Vor: Island of Power

  by Dean Wesley Smith

  Vor: The Rescue

  by Don Ellis

  Vor: Hell Heart

  by Robert E. Vardeman

  Vor: Operation Sierra-75

  by Thomas S. Gressman

  Available from Warner Aspect®

  VOR : THE PLAYBACK WAR . Copyright © 2000 by FASA Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  For information address Warner Books, Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

  VOR: The Maelstrom and all related characters, slogans, and indicia are trademarks of FASA Corporation.

  Aspect® name and logo are registered trademarks of Warner Books, Inc.

  A Time Warner Company

  The “Warner Books” name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  ISBN: 978-0-7595-2215-2

  A mass market edition of this book was published in 2000 by Warner Books.

  First eBook Edition: January 2001

  Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  About the Author

  1

  O n the evening that time started to unravel, Alexi had already made up his mind to die.

  But he wanted to find his glasses first.

  Alexi crept through the rubble on hands and knees, patting the ground, his weapon dragging behind him by its shoulder strap. Bullets tore through the air overhead, occasionally sending a spray of cement chips pattering down on the back of his armored vest. Explosions rocked the streets outside the ruined building where Alexi had taken shelter, making the ground tremble. The air was thick with the smells of smoke, dust, and ruptured sewer lines.

  For three days, the Union’s heavy-assault suits had been chewing their way through Alexi’s battalion. The underequipped Neo-Soviet infantry troops were being decimated. They’d fought and died valiantly, but there was really no point in going on; there were simply too many of the Union juggernauts. And after three days without much sleep, Alexi was simply too exhausted to care whether a bullet found him. He decided to stop trying so hard to survive. Let death come if that was his fate. He had nothing left to lose.

  Another explosion rattled the cement under Alexi’s knees and hands. Outside the ruined building, the battle for Vladivostok was raging. Alexi no longer cared who won the battle. But perversely, he cared about finding his glasses. Ironic, that a man who was ready to give up on life wasn’t ready to give up on his eyesight.

  Alexi patted the rubble he knelt on, hands blindly searching. He couldn’t see a thing. At about the distance of an outstretched arm, everything became a blur.

  “Hey, Alexi.”

  That was Boris’s voice, somewhere just ahead. Alexi squinted, and the voice resolved itself into a dim blur that was hunkered down beside a brighter patch that must have been a hole in the ruined wall.

  “Boris!” Alexi called back. “I can’t find my glasses. Can you see them anywhere?”

  Alexi gently patted the uneven mound of broken concrete and twisted rebar on which he crouched, praying that the glasses hadn’t slipped down into a void in the two-meter-deep pile of rubble that used to be the building’s first floor. His helmet visor was stuck in an up position; if he’d only been able to close it, his glasses wouldn’t have flown off his face when he tripped. The speaker built into his helmet next to his right ear hissed on and off, giving him static-obscured bursts of panicked voices. The rest of the squad was pinned down by something—probably one of the heavy-assault suits that were chewing their way through the underequipped battalions that had been hastily assigned to defend the city. And as usual, Leitenant Soldatenkof was screaming insults. Which meant that someone was about to be shot.

  Boris didn’t move from his spot near the hole in the wall. “Vanya is trying to cross the street,” he said. “Thirty rubles says he doesn’t make it.”

  “Stop it, Boris,” Alexi said wearily. “I’m tired of your jokes.”

  “No, seriously,” Boris continued, his voice a deep rumble that matched his size. “I’ll give you two-to-one odds. Vanya wasn’t well this morning; he was throwing up again. I think his antiradiation pills have stopped working, or else he got another bad batch. He’s so doubled over with cramps that he can barely walk. Thirty rubles says a Union bullet finds him before he’s gone two steps.”

  “Boris, please.”

  “Forty rubles, then. At three-to-one odds.”

  “I just want to find my—”

  “Fifty rubles. Four to one. My final offer.”

  Alexi’s fingers encountered something that was wedged between two pieces of concrete. A piece of smooth glass, framed in wire. His glasses! He tugged gently, but they were stuck. He started to wiggle a chunk of concrete, praying it wouldn’t crack the lens.

  “Sixty rubles?” Boris asked hopefully.

  An explosion just outside the building sent Alexi and Boris sprawling. Chunks of pavement rained in on them, thudding down through the hole where the ceiling had been. One bounced off Alexi’s helmet. With a loud hissing noise his respirator activated, blowing a cloud of stale dust into his nose. Sneezing violently, he pushed himself to his hands and knees. Damn. Where was that crevice his glasses had been in?

  It was getting darker. The blur that was Boris was getting harder to see as the patch of light coming in through the hole dimmed. A bright orange glow, coming from somewhere in the street below, lit the hole for a moment, then began to fade.

  Private Maltovich! Bring up that chem-sprayer on the double! Move it, or I’ll shoot!

  The voice came over Alexi
s helmet speaker, loud and clear. The blow on his helmet must have knocked it back online. That would be Vanya, getting yelled at by the leitenant again. Vanya’s voice sounded exhausted as he radioed back to the squad’s much-despised commanding officer.

  Da, Leitenant. I’m moving.

  Poor Vanya. But at least he could see where he was going.

  “Boris, if I take your bet, will you help me find my—”

  The blur that was Boris moved suddenly. Leaning out the hole, he emptied the entire magazine of his AK-51 in a deafening roar. Smoke from the aging weapon—an antique, even in Alexi’s great-grandfather’s day—drifted back to where Alexi crouched.

  “The bet’s off, Alexi,” Boris said. “Vanya’s across the street now.”

  “We never had a bet,” Alexi reminded him.

  Boris shouted down through the hole. “Hey, Vanya. Give them a squirt for me!”

  Alexi heard a dull pop, followed by the sound of spraying liquid. Something splattered against the outside wall of the ruined building, then moved up the space between the buildings like storm-blown raindrops. A harsh chemical smell wafted in from the street outside. Alexi heard a wet, bubbling sound as the deadly chemicals reacted violently with whatever it was Vanya was hosing down.

  Alexi located his glasses once more by feel, and carefully pried at the chunk of concrete that had trapped them. The speaker in his helmet blared in his ear, making him wince. The respirator still blew cold air in his face.

  Move forward, damn you! You’ve got to get closer, you incompetent, spineless—

  “Ten rubles says Vanya ‘accidentally’ sprays the leitenant,” Boris muttered.

  “It wouldn’t matter if he did,” Alexi said. “Soldatenkof’s armor would save him. I hear they paint the officers’ jackets with a toxin-repellent coating.”

  “That’s just a lie they tell to keep the Chem Grunts from trying,” Boris shot back.

  “Vanya won’t even try,” Alexi said. “He knows what the consequences would be if he succeeded.” As he spoke, he felt the chunk of concrete that had pinned his glasses finally come free. He lifted it up and used it to give the right side of his helmet a good thump. Mercifully, the leitenant’s voice dissolved back into static.

  Alexi lifted his glasses up to his face and squinted at the lenses. A blurry reflection of himself stared back: a scrawny fellow with watery blue eyes and baby-fine blond hair that hung limp on his sweaty forehead. Alexi offered a brief prayer of thanks that the glasses were undamaged, save for a scratch in one lens. Straightening the bent wires, he slipped them over his ears.

  Outside, the patter of automatic-weapons fire had fallen silent. Alexi heard a faint whirring noise and the creaking of metal joints. He wiped a smudge of dust from the lens of his glasses and looked across the shattered room at Boris.

  The large bear of a man, clad in tattered sand-on-green combats and a dull black helmet embossed with a red star, glanced back at Alexi. The heavy three-day growth of beard that framed his face, disappearing down his neck and blending into his hairy chest and shoulders, was gray with dust. Compared to the others in the squad he looked almost healthy, except for the dark circles under his eyes. He wrenched the empty magazine of his AK-51 free, and slapped a fresh one—his last—into place.

  “Better take those glasses off again, Alexi,” he said in a mournful voice. “You’re not going to like what you see. Five thousand rubles says we don’t make it out of here alive.”

  Then he laughed, leaned out the hole again, and fired the AK-51 in a series of short bursts at something in the street. Alexi heard the sound of bullets pinging off metal. Then Boris jerked back inside the wall.

  The answering response was swift: a dull whoosh, and an explosion that punched a smoking hole in the wall a few meters away from Boris. Broken concrete fountained into the room, and Alexi threw up an arm to shield his face. The force of the blast knocked him to the ground.

  He spat dust from his mouth. “What is it?” he gasped.

  “Another assault suit!” Boris shouted. “And this one’s got more than just a machine gun.” He was still in a crouching position; he had braced himself by flinging a meaty hand against the wall when the rocket hit. But the explosion had torn open his shirt, exposing his chest. Tattooed on one of his pectoral muscles, just visible under his thick chest hair, was the bright orange warning symbol for radioactivity: a deadly three-petaled flower. In a fit of masochistic pride, all 460 of the radiation-poisoned soldiers in the so-called Battalion of Death had gone out and gotten them a few months ago. Except Alexi. He shouldn’t have been part of the battalion in the first place. But just try telling the bureaucracy back in Moscow that . . .

  Alexi crept forward on hands and knees. Outside, heavy footsteps crunched through the rubble as an assault-suited Union soldier advanced. Boris risked a brief look out the hole and described what they were up against.

  “This suit is rocket-equipped. It looks as if the launcher is gyro-mounted on the shoulder—”

  Cradling his AK-51, Alexi took a peek through the hole, too . . .

  And found himself face-to-face with an incoming rocket. His eyes had only a second to register the sleek needle of death before it exploded with a hot flash of light and noise. He had a dim awareness of being thrown backward through the air. When he landed, something was horribly wrong. What were his legs doing lying next to Boris? And what was that long red thing that had flown from his gut like a streamer as he was hurled through the air?

  Boris’s body was a blackened husk. White teeth clenched in pain in a face that had most of its flesh burned away. His voice was a dull croak.

  “Make that . . . ten thousand . . . rubles,” he gasped.

  Alexi’s mind began to slip from his body as his blood and guts puddled beneath him. He lay faceup, staring at the night sky through the hole in the ceiling. Dimly, he noticed a bright streak of light across the heavens. His dulled mind fought to identify it. Was it another rocket, like the one that had . . .

  killed . . .

  him?

  2

  B oris, wait.” Alexi laid a hand on the shoulder of the man ahead of him. They were creeping through the ruins of Vladivostok, assault rifles in hand. Boris had just climbed a pile of rubble and was wrenching open what used to be a second-story door on the ruined building.

  “What’s wrong, Alexi?” he rumbled. “This will make a fine vantage point.” Keeping low, he stepped inside and quickly scanned what remained of the building’s interior, cursing as his foot slipped on a piece of loose rubble. Then he motioned Alexi to follow.

  Alexi was nervous, sweating. His glasses slid down his nose, and he pushed them back with a grubby finger. He could see that the footing was unstable. It would be just his luck if he tripped and sprained an ankle, or lost his weapon, or his . . .

  The thought almost reminded him of something. He paused, trying to remember what he’d been about to say. Bullets spanged off the corner of the wall he was hunkered down behind, and Alexi involuntarily ducked.

  “I don’t know, Boris,” Alexi answered. “I just have a bad feeling about it.”

  Which was pretty much how Alexi felt about everything, these days. Bad. He was tired of fighting a useless war, tired of watching the soldiers in his squad die, only to be replaced by more missile fodder. Earlier that day, he’d received word for the third time that it was impossible to amend the medical classification code that had assigned him to an infantry battalion, instead of to the space-recon regiment he’d signed up for when he joined the military, three long years ago. They actually expected him to be consoled by the fact they’d made him a corporal and given him an armored vest. But it didn’t matter what rank he was. He was trapped here on Earth, and there was no way out.

  Except to die. He’d just have to wait, and the bullet with his name on it would find him.

  Or the rocket.

  Now where had that thought come from?

  “I’m going to circle around to the left, down to street
level,” he told Boris. “The heavy-assault suits will have to advance up this street to rescue the one that’s been knocked down. I don’t really think we stand much of a chance, but I’m going to try to find a good place to shoot from.”

  The big man grunted. “Bet you thirty rubles you don’t even make it across the street,” he said.

  Alexi felt his face go pale. “What?”

  Boris chuckled. “Just kidding,” he said. Then his voice grew less brusque. “Listen, if you’re going to cross, wait a moment before you move out. Let me get into position. I’ll cover you from up here.”

  Alexi turned away from the doorway and skidded down the pile of rubble to the street, nearly losing his balance as a nearby explosion rattled the ground. Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he peered out from the base of the ruined building, then jerked back behind the corner when a hail of heavy machine-gun fire chipped cement from the wall a meter above his head. The street was a shooting gallery; his brief glimpse around the corner had told him why. The Union heavy-assault suit that had been downed was lying in a crater at the center of the road, a few meters to the right. Its mechanical legs were crippled and it was unable to walk, or even to stand. But the machine gun mounted on its shoulder was sweeping the road with bullets, making it a formidable obstacle. The Union soldier inside it was safe in his steel shell. Bullets and frag grenades wouldn’t hurt him one bit.

  The heavy-assault suit stood out in vivid color against the gray of the concrete on which it lay. So arrogant were the troops that rode in these hulking behemoths that they didn’t even bother with camouflage paint. Like the pilots of the first of the World Wars, they painted their suits in brilliant colors. This one was a checkerboard of orange and black, with a word written on its chest in English that Alexi couldn’t read.

  To Alexi’s left, farther down the street, a figure in Neo-Sov fatigues popped up from cover like a gopher from a hole. It was the new conscript, Irina. She stood just long enough to hurl a stick with a bulbous orange head. The grenade sailed past Alexi, bounced once on the pavement, and rolled into the crater in the street that the assault suit was occupying.

 
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