Dear Mr. Fateshifter,
 
Hello! My name is Doryn Greenly. Recently you posted an open position in your company for an assistant. I believe, based on your criteria, that I am an excellent candidate for this opening…

 
Zenruid Fateshifter raised an eyebrow. “Assistant… when did I- oh! Yes! For the squirrels! Of course! I can't believe I forgot!” He skimmed the rest, throwing aside the unimportant details, even as other bits caught his interest. 
 
….skill in hunting and tracking, following a family tradition of excellence in this area…. 
 
….enjoyed watching squirrels in the forest and believe they are one of nature’s most underrated animals due to their bravery, agility, and superior longterm memory…. 

 
….currently ready to begin work as soon as is convenient for you, including possible relocation…. 
 
The mad druid hummed under his breath. “So she’s a small time hunter, or she would have mentioned them by name, these parents of hers. She's perfectly willing to bullshit on her cover letter, so she's likely desperate or a squirrel weirdo and I can work with either of those, honestly. Probably unemployed and possibly homeless considering that final answer…” he paused, looking at the name again. 
 
“Doryn. Doryn Greenly. Doreen Green. HA! Oh man! She's perfect! Excellent!” he crowed. “Zentern 37! Come here! Get ready to write as I dictate. Granted she's the only applicant for the position but she's perfect! Ok, ready, 47? 37, whatever. Lookout Jr, I have a message for you to deliver, as soon as I write it. Good! Ahem. Dear Ms. Greenly…” 
 
X
 
On behalf of Fateshifter Industries it is my pleasure to inform you that the position Assistant of Scuiridae is yours! Please review the packet of information enclosed….
 
Doryn stared. Shook herself. Stared more. Blinked at the patch of sky where the delivery owl, since apparently there was such a thing, had flown away into. 
 
What. 
 
I- I got it. I got the job!! Light above- I got a job! I have no idea how but- but I got the job! I'm saved! 
 
Dorby whooped with glee and rolled to the side off the branch she'd been sleeping on and dropped out of the tree, almost nimble but for the stagger on the landing. 
 
She reread the letter, committing the contents to memory. Looks like I will be doing some traveling! I have to meet him by the docks this afternoon in Stormwind, and then I'll board his airship! A real airship! It's definitely better than a sea type ship. Ever since…. Well. I prefer an airship for sure. Nope II is a very odd, though…. but who cares! As long as I get paid! I have to get my stuff together. The packet says I need to have whatever I need with me. And best of all… 
 
Doryn grinned, wide and gleeful, tossing the small sack of coins into the air and catching it with a jaunty flourish. 
 
…He sent an advance! 
 
X
 
She used the money to clean herself up as best she could and eat a solid meal for the first time in too long. A few minutes work of folding with her cloak wrapped it around the very few personal items she possessed, and, vaguely remembering how her mother and father did it, she tied the ends to make a roughly cylindrical bag. Doryn buckled her belt around it, nodding. That would do for the most part. With that tucked under one arm, she strode toward the docks, excitement in every step. 
 
This felt like living. This felt like the beginning of a new day. Color saturated the world; birds sang sharper and baking bread smelled stronger. How had she forgotten what adventure felt like? 
 
It felt fantastic
 
Briefly she stopped to check her appearance in a shop window. 
 
 The earlobe length ginger hair, with its unruly wavy curls sticking up, could be better, but it was clean at least and not oily or dirty. Short bangs swept to the left, some errant licks reaching up to the sky. Pinkish from the brisk scrubbing she'd given herself, her fair skin blushed and burned with equal ease, and she had a bit of one on her nose at the moment. Freckles covered her all over. But she looked less hungry and homeless, hopeless, than before. Her hunters leather hunter's garb had patches, but they were neatly done and all of it freshly washed like she was. 
 
Not going to get any better- and I've sure as fel been worse! 
 
Jubilant and a little anxious by turns, she stopped in front of the docks, and looked up. 
 
The Nope II was, in fact, an airship, and a nice one too from the look of things. Tethered above her,  rotors whipping lazily at the moment, she could see little antlike men swarming among the rigging. It wasn't small, but it was nowhere near the size of an alliance military ship- some sort of converted cargo vessel, apparently. Despite that, she could see the places in the side where hatches could open and reveal armaments. 
 
“Yeah, I'm pretty proud of her.” 
 
Doryn jumped about nine feet into the air. Behind her, with all the nonchalance of its kind, a massive shaggy dark indigo cat yawned and bared teeth the size of her forearm.
 
“The name wasn't my choice, though,” the great fanged beast added, and as she stared, it shifted into a tall male elf. Strange scientific looking goggly things covered his eyes, and he moved with a frenetic wild energy as he smiled winningly at her. “Zenruid Fateshifter. And you must be-”
 
“Doryn! Sorry. Doryn Greenly. It's, uh, it's a pleasure to meet you, sir,” she said, stammering a minute, then recovering. Remembering her manners, she held out her hand and shook, firmly, like Dad taught her. 
 
“A good strong handshake! I like it! Great to finally meet you, Doreen-”
 
“It's Doryn-?”
 
“-can't tell you how long I've been looking for someone to help me with this particular little experiment! But good help is so hard to find. It takes a very special person to do this job, you know, and it takes someone special like you to do it. Namely, someone brilliant enough to do it right, but dumb enough to take it in the first place. You're one in a million, kid! ” Doryn blinked. Wait, what? 
 
He was talking too fast for her to mention it, though, leaving her confused and behind. “Come on up!” 
 
With that he turned into a large bird (was he a druid? He had to be, with this… seamless magic that he was doing) and launched himself up. 
 
She apparently had to make do with a rope that someone tossed down the side.
 
“…Really?” Doryn muttered. 
 
The bird was a man agian, sitting on the rail of the ship, legs dangling. He waved. “Think like a squirrel and climb!” her new boss yelled encouragingly. 
 
X
 
Zen watched as Doreen looked up at him, to the rope, and back to the ship. It was about two hundred feet long, and a definite test of physical fitness. Hunter or no hunter, she wouldn't survive if she wasn't up to par! Better to know now than fill out the paperwork later!
 
Below him, she tugged on the rope, testing it. Then she…
 
….Zenruid grinned and cackled briefly. Oh yes, I like her, I do! 
 
She finished the knot she was tying at the end of the rope and started on another. In a few minutes she completed several, and used those as handholds to begin her climb. Of course with her weight on the rope she couldn't make any more, but by then she’d managed a convenient little trick that involved wrapping the rope around one foot and making little “steps” as she went up the line. 
 
Wheezing, redfaced and out of breath, she flopped on the deck like a fish. 
 
“Not bad at all! Now, we have a few technicalities to take care of before we can get to the fun stuff,” he told her, rubbing his hands. “The crew knows what to do, they’ll send us off while you fill out the paperwork.”
 
After all, no one could say he didn't warn his employees! Especially not after signing paperwork that nobody ever bothered to read…. 
 
X
 
There WAS a lot of paperwork. In the interests of time, she just signed where she should and told herself she’d read them through in full later. 
 
To her delight, lunch was next, brought by a gruff barrelchested airsailor, who told her they were taking off if she wanted to see. 
 
Doryn ate with speed and bolted out onto the deck to see. 
 
“Oh, wow,” she breathed. Is this what birds feel like? Or gods? 
 
Below them, Stormwind dropped swiftly away, as the motors kicked into high gear. Wisps of cotton were all that marred the endless blue expanse of sky, those and the sun, with a cool breeze contrasting delightfully around the warm sunshine. Clear and brilliant, the air had a special type of headiness all its own, intoxicating. Doryn grinned in response to the feeling and leaned recklessly over the rail to watch the bastion of human civilization fade away. The motors kicked up a notch, wind buffeting her hair. 
 
Now THIS is traveling in style! I'll never be one much for the sea but this is awesome! 
 
Eventually she went back belowdecks, when the wind turned cool and made her eyes sting and tear, and her pale cheeks were pink from windchap. She found the paperwork gone -apparently the army of “zenterns”, whatever those were, had been here- and in its place was a leather backpack: the good kind with reinforced straps, waxed and oiled, apparently already packed. It wasn't bulging, but it was quite stuffed. A strange cord whose purpose she didn't know dangled from it. Doryn tried it on for size. 
 
Fits perfectly! 
 
“Ah good, I thought I got your measurements right. You'll need that! A good backpack is essential for doing Science!” 
 
Apparently my new boss has a habit of sneaking. She turned again to face him in the form of that giant cat for the second time. Doryn grinned at him. He seemed pretty informal, which she liked in a boss. I still have no idea what he actually wants from me, but hey, he keeps giving me free stuff, so who cares? 
 
“It’s um, really nice. Looks waterproof and everything. Nice tight stitching.” She ran her hands over it. 
 
“Oh, there’s more! Those clothes have got to go, girl. They're all fine and well however PPE-” he started but Doryn interrupted without thinking. 
 
“Personal Protective Equipment?” 
 
Zen blinked at her. And then he gave her a very wide, slightly devilish grin. “You are full of surprises, Doreen!”
 
“Doryn, and, uh, well- I tinker a little. I always liked science and stuff. But Mum and Dad needed the help, specially later and then, well… it didn't happen. Still. I tried to make waterproof firetarter sticks for Mum once and near about burn my eyebrows off. Used goggles after, never did get it right. Yours are nice. Lost ‘em in the Invasion, though…” she trailed off, swallowing. 
 
The grin only widened. “Then today is YOUR lucky day! Try this stuff on while I get the rest,” he ordered, and vanished in a catlike bound around the corner and out the door before she could finish asking:
 
“What rest?”
 
X
 
Best. Job. Ever.
 
Her old clothes lay on the floor. The new ones… 
 
It wasn't anything fancy but the functionality could not be denied: leather and chain and scale-mail, greased and supple and quiet, with a green cloak. The cuirass covered most of her chest; the half-finger gloves also served as arm guards with hard boiled leather. The good solid boots looked like they would go for years. Protecting her legs and thighs were a series of overlapping metal plates. 
 
Mobile and armored both. You could hunt in the Blackwald in all this, thorns and all. Mum and Dad would've loved this… 
 
…Huh. The thought doesn't hurt like it usually does. 

 
She shoved the older ones into the bag without really looking at what else was there, stretching and humming happily. 
 
Now, he said to meet him on the lowest deck…. 
 
Doryn trotted off.Look at me! A model employee! All this on top of getting paid! Chuckling to herself, she whistled a merry tune as she turned down the hall and padded softly down metal steps and walkways, loving the way that her new boots muffled the noise. 
 
Zenruid was waiting for her, and he had some… stuff… behind him? 
 
“I thought you might like all that,” he said, nodding at her. “Better, much better, you're less likely to get maimed or killed wearing that than those old rags you used to have.” 
 
She furrowed her brow -another wierd reference? What was going on?- but as seemed to be the norm for him, her boss moved three steps ahead as she stumbled mentally. 
 
“Now! Take this, there, good. These are your S.P.E.C.S.” He handed her a set of goggles that were as much goggles as a tank was a vehicle- technically accurate, but an entirely different beast altogether. An antenna glowed faintly, a wire circled the headband, a powerbox at the back of it all, padding around the glass for comfort, and the whole thing tricked out nine ways from Sunday. Her eyes widened. 
 
“Specs?”
 
“Squirrel Power Enhancing Communication Shades. Yeah, just slide them over your head- use that knob to adjust, they've got all the latest bells and whistles, there's a manual in your bag,” he added. “Working alright?”
 
She fiddled with the knob and gasped as it zoomed in and out wildly. There was a moment of dizzying detail and then it settled. Though the lenses was blue, her view of the world wasn't tinted, though that changed when she pushed a button. The SPECS didn't make a sound as she turned them on and adjusted them for a moment. 
 
“Yeah- these are amazing! What do they do? Did you make these?”
 
“Well, I don't like to brag, but it's not bragging if it's true and I am a genius.” He'd switched forms again from cat to elf. “They do all sorts of things. More fun to let you find out on your own. First and foremost though they have a Mechabond Imprint Matrix, the same one- oh, crap, I forgot. Come here.” He beckoned her over. She blinked, confused but curious, and went obediently. 
 
Then Zenruid took out a strange syringey shotlike gun with a huge needle and grabbed her arm! 
 
“On three. Ready?” 
 
“Whoa, whoa, what is-?!”
 
“Three!”
 
PCHOOMP!
 
“OW! What the fel?!” Doryn yelled as she yanked away, glaring at him. 
 
“There! Now a corresponding Mechabond Imprint Matrix is implanted subdermally in you and will start to bond with your nervous system, not to mention connecting you, the squirrels, and the goggles into one system! Clever huh?” He asked, seemingly totally unperturbed at casually modifying her nervous system
 
“…W-What?” Doryn asked faintly.No- I must have- did he just- I must have misheard, what is- wait, what's going on-? 
 
 
“I thought so too. So! Now the weapons. I wasn't sure what you preferred,” he said cheerfully, “so-” 
 
He handed her a great honking halberd-looking thing with a wicked edge- 
 
“-I got you-” 
 
-and then a gun that seethed fire and seemed extremely unsafe and how big were the bullets because the gun itself had a barrell four inches across and made her grunt as he dropped it into her open hands on top of the halberd-
 
“-one of each! Cause I'm an excellent boss.” 
 
Excellent boss? You just- OOF!
 
On top of it all, and making her arms tremble with the weight, went a crossbow that looked part fucking axe from the wicked blades and size of the thing; resting on its butt it looked almost as big as she was! 
 
“I-Is this for an orc or something?” She sputtered. Zenruid “helped” by attaching the gun and halberd to her backpack, leaving her struggling with the crossbow. 
 
“Nice eye! Yeah it's some spares I had from that whole Iron Horde thing. Now! Fun part, for real this time! Meet…. YOUR TEAM!” Zen cried in dramatic fashion, and ripped a sheet off of a table covering several lumpy objects that she had previously ignored. 
 
“….What?”
 
On the table sat… three squirrels. Or rather, three very squirrel shaped mechanical constructs. Still and silent, they were clearly deactivated, but just as clearly she knew quality work when she saw it. The level of detail… what is- I can see the articulations in each little toe. I can see where the face bends and stuff to make expressions. Holy Light- who IS this guy? This is beyond anything I've ever heard of, let alone seen! 
 
They were metallic, but also painted on some parts, red and yellow with green little eyes. The riveting remained obvious, contrasting sharply with the smooth fluid lifelike structure of each squirrel. Doryn gaped. 
 
“Meet the  S.Q.U.I.R.R.E.L  B.O.T.S,” Zen declared grandly, clearly very excited. “One of my more original creations! It stands for 
 
Secret 
Quantum 
Uppity
Incinderary
Rodent 
Robots
Ending 
Lives
 
Bioneural
Overclocked
Terrifying 
Squeakers.” 
 
“Did- did you manage to detail fur?” She heard herself ask. He had, by the Light, somehow managed to detail fucking fur. What the shit.
 
“Oh! Yeah, totally, took some doing but I eventually found some carbonsteel nanofibers that I could integrate into the bioneural feedback. After that it was just time and effort to create the follicles and give them all a hair and match the color. They're alive, these guys,” Zen said fondly. “As alive as you or me! Bioneural circuitry means they learn heuristically, outside anything an algorithn could come up with, just like a real squirrel! If real squirrels could communicate telepathically and shoot fireballs. Actually I could never get that bit working. Go figure. Still! Technically they haven't been “born” yet. I made them after being, shall we say, inspired by a coworker’s encounter with some very angry fel squirrels. Who knew they were so scary? But I knew there had to be a use for thier apparent savagery combined with thier undeniable adorableness. I knew after the first prototype I was really on to something. But due to the way the biofeedback functions and given how squirrels are extremely territorial, they don't share well at all. They needed a central connecting neural linkage center, a host, or hostess. Otherwise thier natural instincts can be in conflict with thier core programming and cause consistent crashes, errors, and an occasional nuclear meltdown.”
 
Oh no. Ohhhh no. This is not what I wanted, no way, nuh uh, I did not sign up for this-! 
 
“I needed a squirrel assistant. But I couldn't find one! Not a single applicant until you, you wonderful person.” Zen gave her that bright smile she now recognized as a prelude to terrible things. “And you hunt and tinker and oh! Couldn't be better, you really could not be better for my live fire exercises.”
 
“Your WHAT?!” she blurted. 
 
“Here, it’s dangerous to go alone, take these! The manual is in your backpack. I’ll be monitoring your vital signs remotely. With that, the squirrels, and your new armor, I estimate your chances of survival to be all the way in the double digits!” He worked fast, buckling the backpack around her waist with a strap she hadn't been able to figure out before, and sticking the squirrels -still inert- into three large pouches on her belt, and refastened the goggles around her head as she sputtered protests. But she couldn't physically stop him without dropping the enormous crossbow and possibly cutting her feet or other important bits off with the bladed edges! 
 
“There! All ready to go!” 
 
“Go where?” Doryn demanded angrily. “What the fel is wrong with you? You can't just- just modify PEOPLE without asking! And link them to, to, to crazy cybernetic bioneural squirrels!! Are you insane?” 
 
“Of course I am. Good thing too, or this would probably never work. And anyways, I put it all in the paperwork! Not my fault you didn't actually read it,” Zen pointed out with perfect logic. “Besides, it’ll be good character development for you!” 
 
Leaving her standing in the middle of the lowest deck on the airship, he pressed a button on the back panel. CHNK went heavy machinery and WRRRR-TUNK went the floor in the middle between her and her boss. 
 
And then, it simply fell away on mechanical hinges, opening the belly of the ship into empty sky. 
 
Howling wind smacked her in the face, the sudden stink of sulfur and hot metal lacing it with an ugly perfume. Something like thunder that wasn't rolled in the sky; the sun was gone, she could tell from the lighting, obscured by dark grey-green putrid clouds. Below them, far below, an island, an island cracked and broken and green, reeling of death and war. 
 
The Broken Shore. The most savage war zone the world has ever seen, with an unrelenting, unstoppable enemy, she thought numbly.All those people missing limbs and horribly burned and mentally scarred and screaming in thier sleep…
 
“I'm going to die.” 
 
She didn't realize she'd spoken out loud until she heard herself. 
 
“Well you will with that kind of attitude!” Zen scolded. He thrust the odd little cord into the hand least occupied with the bladed crossbow. “Just pull that, you’ll be fine! Think like a squirrel! Fierce!” 
 
He made a little scary buck toothed squirrel face. It didn't help. 
 
“Now….” Zen moved to the wall again and put his hand on a lever. “We PULL THE LEVER!”
 
“No! Wait, I don't-”
 
And the floor beneath Zen vanished, sending him tumbling into space. 
 
“WRONG LEVERRRRRR!” Screamed the mad druid as he dropped, flailing, down to certain death.
 
Doryn’s mouth moved, but nothing happened. 
 
…What? 
 
And then she screamed “BLOODY FEL!” because that huge bird form of his shot back up into the ship, flapping crazily to keep itself upright in the wind currents. It grabbed a railing with talons the size of her fingers and steadied itself.
 
“Why do we even HAVE that lever?” muttered the bird as he turned back into an elf. Doryn felt a bit lightheaded with a strange combination of shock, fury, and sheer relief. 
 
I sort of want to strangle him but I didn't want him to die! And I still need this job! I just have to talk him out of this madness-
 
“Must be this one,” Zen said. Cheerfully he grasped the other, unused, only remaining lever. “Ok! Take two! So: your goals, in short, are to test the squirrels in a live fire situation. Gather as much information as you can, and try not to die. It took me forever to find you and you're built for this, Doryn Greenly,” he told her, almost fondly.
 
“W- wait, wait, you can't do this- it's not-” 
 
“Shhh. It'll be fine! It'll be fine. Double digits remember?” . 
 
“Oh, no, oh no, no no no, don't do it, don't you dare, don't you do it-”
 
“Just trust yourself and your squirrels! It'll be fun! Live fire exercises always are! Or at least educational.” 
 
“This isn't fair!” Fear warred with the burning desire to plant her foot on his backside and shove. The one time, the ONE TIME something seems to be going right, and it's not, it's SO not right at ALL!!
 
Zenruid gave her a genuinely pitying look. “Oh you poor thing. You still think the world is fair. But don't worry! You are prepared,” he told her with a friendly little wave. 
 
And then he pulled the lever, and the floor dropped out beneath her. With the weight of the backpack, weaponry and armor, she was gone like a lead brick out a skyscraper window. 
 
Doryn screamed.
 
“YOU CRAZY BASTAAAAAARRRRD!” 
 
“DON’T FORGET TO PULL THE STRING!” Zen yelled back, and closed the door behind her. In the sudden silence of the airship’s metal belly, he laughed, and it echoed maniacally off the walls. 
 
“I like that one. I really do,” he said to himself, as he turned back into his cat form and padded away. 

Author Cael
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