The Warbler

Summary: A near future mercenary encounters a strange device turning the tide in favor of archaic weapons.

"Skald Squad breaching enemy strongpoint," echoed across the military comms as live camera feed streamed back from gun-cams and orbiting drones.

The Greater Liberation Front dug deep into the bombed-out city, stalling our client's offensive for weeks. The government hired us to do what its incompetent conscripts could not, win.

It was not as easy as the corporate briefing suggested. I got the first-hand view from our grunts' drones, mounted cams, and more esoteric information streams. I just passed it all upstairs, so the real spooks could make sense of it.

"Contact! Demo drones!" came the panicked shouting a moment later.

I looked onto the screen to see Skald Squad running into the latest unpleasant surprise. Remote control cars and famished dogs rigged with explosives emerged out of alleyways and basement windows, like a Biblical plague.

Skald Squad's shotgunners unloaded on the torrent in those narrow, rubble-strewn alleyways, painting the walls crimson. One of the dogs looked like the mangy mutt I grew up with, so I winced when I saw blasted to bits.

We'd lost Fenris and Surtur Squads the first time they'd tried that trick, but quick thinking caused us to start equipping at least two shotgunners at squad level.

"The dogs looked like they'd been starving," came the intel officer's analysis. "Probably a trap they set and left."

"Roger that, Freya," came the reply from Skald Squad's leader, Magnus.

Our tactical AI generated pseudo-randomized, Norse myth callsigns for each mission, so we'd become harder for the enemy to target. Our assignment of names was far less mythologically appropriate, but far less helpful to the enemy.

They'd figured out Fafnir Squad was our UAV air support element. Their jury-rigged HERF and anti-drone weapons managed to take down two of our drones, and they even spoofed one into landing in a nearby country friendly with our competitors. The boss was furious we'd lost two decades of research. Since then, we went old school with artillery and hardened circuits. Less expensive, but more spectacular to watch.

Just then, one of our drone cameras looked in closely on Skald Squad. I heard shouting over their radio, and then the camera went black.

"We lost control of Odin," my colleague said, matter-of-factly. "It crashed into Skald Squad."

I shifted to other sensors at my disposal, trying to make sense of what happened. The enemy must've hijacked another drone, which still happened occasionally. I didn't get a visual from Magnus' gun-cam, but his microphone was clear. The sound-analysis algorithms registered gunshots somewhere close, and Skald Squad returning fire.

"Troops in contact! Repeat! Troops in contact!" he shouted frantically.

The biometric sensors on the squads' uniforms and helmets registered their stress and panic. Even for experienced mercenaries, you never could get used to the ambushes. I was lucky my slight limp was enough to disqualify me from infantry postings. The staccato of the mad firefight continued. I saw sporadic images come back from the gun-cams, illuminated by insane strobes of muzzle-flash. My image analysis software noted several anomalies. Enemies clearly in the gun-sights remained upright, despite several rounds discharged in that direction. Even if the enemy wore armor, they should at least be reeling backwards. A round's kinetic energy didn't just vanish. Despite this, Skald Squad was taking casualties. The shotgunners were down, and Magnus was wounded.

The images of strange devices on their shoulders was enough to pique my interest. Judging from the microphone feeds, they were emitting some form of ultrasound, aimed directly at Skald Squad. As the rebels expended the last of their ammunition, they drew swords and charged. The last image we received was a gun-cam snapshot of a bloody blade cleaving the weapon aside.

Needless to say, the boss was furious. We'd lost our best unit, and inflicted only minor damage to the enemy. He came down and shouted at us, and I then I noticed the timestamps on the microphone data. I recognized the machinery the guerrillas wore: A Reilly Corp warbler. They were saser devices, which emitted focused ultrasound beams to clean machinery. The ultrasound output wasn't enough to deafen the soldiers, but it was focused enough to deflect bullets. Using only sporadic images, I saw the trajectory of a round divert from an enemy's center of mass, and terminate its flight in a nearby wall. Larger caliber rounds, like shotgun slugs and the enemy's heavier rifles, were unaffected by it. The enemy was clever, but I'd never realized they were this clever.

It was then the power went out. As the backup generator came on, the room collapsed into pandemonium. Explosions reverberated outside as our staff ran for the emergency exits. I found myself crushed by a maddened mob, and fought to get to my workstation. I heard gunfire behind me, and I knew the enemy was here. Our paltry security collapsed like a cheap table, and the guerrillas began searching for survivors. I drew a downed guard's pistol, and emptied it at the nearest militant. He walked over, almost bemused, and raised his machete. The raised blade was the last thing I saw. I swore the last thing I heard was a high-pitched chirping.