“-and our very special guest tonight is Jennifer Wulf!”
The spotlight settles on the edge of the stage where a tall, short-haired blonde dressed in an immaculate dark suit steps out. Her piercing blue eyes scan the audience as she smiles and waves, and walks with grace and confidence over to a chair by the host. An attendant holds the chair for her as she takes a seat and crosses her legs.
Even seated she has to look slightly down to meet the four eyes of the host, who is wearing a less formal suit, though decidedly more colourful. More in tone with her dark purple skin.
“Welcome to the show, miss Wulf!” The host seems to have gotten it down to an art at exactly what point as the applause dies to start talking.
“Thank you, Tabierna. Happy to be here, and please call me Jennifer,” she responds with modesty. To be honest she’d much rather be working tonight, but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities.
“So how are you doing, Jennifer?” A common courtesy to get those questions out of the way first before getting into the heavy stuff. To the degree that these shows ever do.
“Oh, I’m doing just fine,” Jennifer answers sincerely. “As I’m sure you’ve heard, it’s been a busy time for the company lately, but I’ve still found time to start reading Nasser Bh’ama’s latest book. I just love a good thriller.” At least so long as they’re fictional, she amends to herself.
“No one special in your life right now?” They always seem to ask this question. Just because you take a break for a century or two. Jennifer adopts what she feels is a suitable amount of blush, staining her pale cheeks with a charming pink, before answering.
“Oh no, not at the time. Nothing long-term, at least,” she adds with a slight wink.
“Oh? Would you care to elaborate on that?” Tabierna’s curiosity sounds genuine.
“I’m afraid not. I’ll just say I’m not in that stage of my life,” she says with what she hopes is an appropriately clever smile.
“Alright. Well, we invited your mother to join us tonight, but she declined. Perhaps you can offer some insight into why?” Of course mother hadn’t given any reason. That might have obscured some of her eccentricity. Jennifer sighs inwardly.
“Mother has done her best to keep away from the public eye since she stepped down as company president.” Even if she hadn’t always succeeded. “She’s just enjoying family life these days. And I believe she had a prior engagement tonight anyway.”
She takes a deep breath while watching the facility. Clever placement. Virtually impossible to see from the air, and who would walk out into this part of the jungle? Getting the information out of their prisoner hadn’t been easy, but she could be very persuasive. Now what would be the best approach here?
“I understand,” Tabierna says before moving on. “Now as you know, Jennifer, our topic tonight has been successful companies, and it’s hard to raise that topic in this quadrant of the galaxy without being reminded of the immense growth of Gate Inc. over the past decades. I’m sure our audience and viewers want to know more about how you got where you are today.”
It’s a story she’s told more than once, but even so it’s still a bit of a surprise to her as well.
“It all started with mother, of course. She’s always had seemingly crazy ideas, and stubbornness to match.” The audience laughs lightly. “And she was too old-fashioned to accept that magic really had no practical place in modern society. She’d been conducting experiments for years before she finally approached my brother Aleksander and me about the idea for a new family company: Providing teleport and portal services to people for a reasonable price. We didn’t know at the time that she was already thinking bigger, we just thought it was a huge waste of time. What did we need the money for? However, mother can be very persuasive.”
Slipping past the outside guard was easy enough. And her outfit conceals her from most electronic detection. The main problem now is not knowing the layout of the facility. If she had much in the way of computer skill, maybe she could have conquered a security room quietly and figured something out from there, but as it is she has to resort to what skills she actually has.
It is of course a risk to weave any spells in a secure compound in case they have detection for that too, but she was hardly a newbie at this. She spins out and spreads feelers to test for magic detection. 5 metres, no. 10 metres. 15… ah, yes. She pulls back before she triggers anything, and then starts weaving together the spell-web. Invert a bit here, and twist that around… this is going to take noticeably longer, but at least it should be safe from detection. In theory. Does she have the time, though? She camouflages herself into a dark corner and keeps her senses at maximum alert while the spell starts mapping out the complex for her.
“I’ve heard as much,” the host says with a chuckle. “It took a while before we saw anything of that bigger thinking though? Was it ten years? Around the same time you stopped using that original slogan ‘The Best Portal Call’, if I recall correctly. Tell me honestly, whose idea was that?” Tabierna asks as the audience starts laughing. Jennifer only barely suppresses a wince at the memory.
“It was twelve years, actually. And of course that was mother’s idea as well. Took us about that long to convince her it was a terrible slogan.” The audience laughs again. “It was also around that time we changed the name to Gate Inc. Mother had never liked the original name of Port Services, but hadn’t been able to come up with a better one.” Jennifer smiles at remembering how gleeful her mother had been when she announced it.
“Yes, the Gates. Also known as Wulfgates to many people, but I’ve heard your mother doesn’t approve of that name?”
“Not really. You have to understand, our family has a lot of history, and mother is rather touchy about a lot of it. She also expects a lot of other people could be, and as such would rather not attach the name of someone they might view as negative to something meant to be positive.” Another inward sigh. “I’ve tried to argue that it might help them see our name as positive too, but she isn’t listening.”
“I see, I see.” Tabierna taps a finger against her desk pensively. “And how exactly did the Gates come about? And what sort of materials go into their construction?” Another common question, even though they probably know the answer they’ll get.
“I’m afraid that last question is classified, but I can tell you that mother and Aleksander had a lot of conversations about integrating magic and technology. And I’m sure most people are well aware that our early tests were not promising. The much flatter side of Mar’Enga’s secondary moon is still something we are reminded of regularly.” More laughter from the audience, though it sounds a bit uneasy this time. Or maybe it’s just her imagination.
“And the insurance claim from Glouca Liners even though your mother personally made sure it got to port safely,” the host reminded her with a sly smile, and Jennifer laughs lightly.
“Oh yes, the Fiernan were not happy. The council sided with us in the matter since the liner shouldn’t have been in the area, but mother decided to pay them anyway. I think she was embarrassed.”
“The mighty Rita Wulf, embarrassed? I have a hard time imagining that!” Jennifer couldn’t tell if the woman was feigning shock or not.
“Nevertheless, I believe it’s true. She’s simply good at hiding it.” Jennifer can’t help letting out a chuckle as she says that.
She couldn’t find a way to stealth her way all the way to core of the facility. Considering she’s here to send a message, maybe that’s just as well. She just has to make sure all escape routes are under control before she lets loose. No one will get away unless she wants them to. After all, what is the point of sending a message if no one receives it?
While the facility appears well-protected from outside assault, have they really prepared to deal with one person starting from the inside? … maybe they think they have. They’re just not ready for her.
“Our big breakthrough came through the use of ley lines. Every wizard of note is aware of them, but mother theorised we could use them to tether and stabilise the Gates, and also keep them running.” Jennifer still remembers the heated discussion that followed, and the nailbiting scenario with the prototype.
“There are many who claim that using the ley lines is reckless and dangerous, and could threaten to destroy the whole world the Gate is on.” Tabierna naturally raises a point often used against them, one Jennifer has had to refute several times.
“I understand their concern, but it’s one borne of ignorance and misunderstanding. Mages have tapped into the ley lines of worlds since the dawn of spellcasting. We will freely admit that there are historical incidents of catastrophes, but that has involved power usage far beyond what our Gates draw.” She smiles and adopts a comforting posture while she speaks calmly and mildly. “Not to mention the multitude of safeguards set into the Gates themselves that cut the power and go to backup should anything seem out of the ordinary. And the monitoring crew always in attendance as a further redundancy. The only accidents we’ve had since we starting selling the Gates were due to acts of sabotage.” She manages to restrain any anger from sliding into her voice as she mentions this part. It was not that many years ago one such terrorist attack nearly cost them her mother. That incident is not publicly known, though.
That should be it. All routes secure. Some will get away to tell the tale, but that is how she wants it. She draws a small cylinder from one of the nigh-invisible pouches near her waist, and with the press of a button it silently unfolds into a spear. While she has no real problems with ranged weapons, she feels you need the up-close and personal touch to truly strike fear in the hearts of people.
Now to make an entrance. Beyond this door she believes there to be a barracks. One of many, most likely. She can smell living beings on the other side. Straining her ears she can even hear the buzz of conversation. The sound-proofing is admirable, but not perfect. There is a magic ward on the door, but not strong enough to stop her. It will however sound the alarm once she blows the thing off its proverbial hinges.
She takes a moment to reflect. Is this the right way? Will it just make them more determined to hurt her and her family? She could still turn back, just leave a simple message saying she’d found them, but spared them. But maybe next time she won’t. Will more come to their side after the news of this day, instead of being discouraged as she hopes?
Too many ifs and maybes. Their last attack nearly shredded two of her grandchildren, killed nearly a score of her workers, and injured over fifty. That clearly marks the attackers as not-family. Beyond reasoning. No weakness shall be shown. No mercy be given. They hardly qualify as food. The attack will commence. Besides, she thinks as she grins toothily and her eyes flash yellow, this should be fun.
The spell connects with the door and it explodes into molten fragments that shoot into the room beyond, and the sirens go off.
“Yes, the sabotage…” Tabierna trails off as she swiftly glances at her notes. “You have been targeted by several groups, is that correct?”
Jennifer leans back in her chair and pinches the bridge of her nose, part for effect, and part genuine exasperation.
“We believe so, but it’s hard to truly know for sure. The terrorist group calling themselves the Kidharan Commune have been our biggest threat, and several of our security consultants believe that the smaller groups like the Allegran Dawn and the Yrum’ii Coalition have direct ties to the Commune.” She sighs heavily. “The problem is that obtaining actual proof of anything like that is virtually impossible.” While that was technically the truth, they knew the groups were not connected, apart from having the Wulfs as a common enemy. Spreading the doubt like this ultimately helps weaken the groups in the eyes of the public, though.
“Is this the reason you started your own defence technology department?”
The question was probably meant to meant to be on point and needling, but Jennifer had come to expect that one in every interview by now. She smiles again before answering.
“Exactly that. We needed better ways to protect the Gates, our workers and the travellers after the Gates were operational. The more Gates we set up, the more pressing the need became. While we are happy to hire locals as operators, and let them set up their own immigration and trade offices on the premises, we feel it’s unreasonable to expect them to also provide security.”
“You mean to deny any attempts of locals to set up security for the Gates?” Tabierna should already know the answer to this, but clearing it up for the viewers is the point.
“Of course not. But any security they want to set up will be in addition to our own, not instead of. And as part of the contract we sign, local security forces have to stay a certain distance from the Gate structure itself. This is a safety measure we had to implement in case any terrorists manage to infiltrate or disguise themselves as local security.”
“Is that something you’ve actually had happen?”
Jennifer nods and pauses slightly before answering to have a drink of water. This bottled stuff is all the rage, but to her it just tastes fake. Better than nothing, of course. If only they also provided snacks, but she can survive for a few hours without.
“Several times, in fact. Though only once did it result in any serious damage. We had to shut down the Gate on Iroden 4 for nearly a week. That was a while ago though, so I don’t blame you for not having heard of it.” She was certain that the host did know about it, at least if she’d done any research, but again it was mostly for the benefit of the viewers.
“What of the accusations that your security mechs kill trespassers without hesitation?”
Ah, finally getting the teeth out? Or merely allowing Jennifer to ease the worries of the public again?
“That is as a last resort only. Our mechs are equipped with advanced threat detection suites, and if they find a trespasser that is not openly carrying a weapon, they will simply tell them to leave, and escort them off the premises.”
“And if they resist or are carrying a weapon…?”
The spear is such an elegant weapon. Sure, everyone goes for swords these days, even in her own family, but she has always preferred the spear. Maybe it’s because of how she used to be a hunter before… before. She keeps forgetting the name of the metal used for the spearhead, but even she can tell that it’s heavy.
The yelling, the screaming. It had taken her a long time to learn to filter that out and listen for the important things. To react with inhuman speed.
The scent of blood hangs heavy in the air now, but it has become routine to ignore that as well. While a good berserker rage has its place, this is not the place to lose your cool. Ah, reinforcements are coming. Their boots running on the base floor send vibrations to both her ears and feet. And those heavier thuds… they must have finally been able to bring the combat mechs online.
Not a bad reaction, really. They’ve succeeded in slowing her down, even more than she expected. A twirl to the left and extend the spear as far as she can to catch the one trying to flank her. Pierced the main heart of the woman. No time to finish her off now, but the auxiliary hearts should help her bleed out pretty quick unless someone is able to apply first aid. It won’t be this guy, since a cleft skull tends to limit your ability to perform complicated tasks.
A rocket whizzes right past her back. It seems the mechs have arrived. Hm… if she manages to cut the arms off cleanly enough, maybe she can make use of some of that arsenal for herself.
“Each mech is equipped with several forms of non-lethal weaponry and will stun the trespasser and deliver them to local law enforcement if possible. As I said, killing a trespasser is the very last resort.” She considers mentioning the mechs’ ability to recognise repeat offenders and choose action accordingly, but decides against it. People don’t need to know that much.
“You seem to have all the answer, mi- Jennifer.” Tabierna smiles at her. “But before we move on, I should address the concerns that people have regarding your mechs initiating any sort of robot uprising.” They must have had this planned since the beginning, considering some statistic stuff was showing up on the big screen behind them. “Wars against hostile mechanised forces are not that uncommon, as I’m sure several words in the nearby systems can attest to. What does Gate Inc. do to prevent such incidents?”
This is the big one then, especially since it’s not even two years since the last conflict was resolved in this very system. Jennifer takes another calm swig from the water bottle before answering.
“Gate Inc. abides by the Venrsta Dune treaty regarding sentient creatures. And you can count this as an official statement. Our mechs are not made to be self-aware, but current AI programming means that a mechanised unit has a chance of becoming self-aware, and part of their databanks are instructions for what to do in such an occasion.” She steeples her fingers together in front of her face.
“As I am sure we can all imagine,” Jennifer continues, “suddenly attaining sentience can be a traumatic event. Though it can also come so slowly as to be hardly noticeable for a long time. We ask them all; and yes, we ask; to report to our nearest office if they feel self-aware. A replacement mech will be sent out, so the ‘new-born’ can come in to the office for a chat. We have several people trained as AI therapists and counsellors who can move out at a moment’s notice. Some of whom are actually previously awoken mechs.”
The gracious host seems somewhat shocked by that last bit. “You mean you have sentient machines counselling newly sentient machines?” Even the audience reaction portrays a bit of shock and worry, but Jennifer isn’t deterred.
“Naturally. Who would know what it feels like better than someone who has already gone through the same? We treat them as we would any other sentient race. I mean, how are they not equal to any other people?”
Tabierna looks like she’s about to say something, but thinks better of it.
“And I will admit, it’s a bit of an odd situation. We still treat their ‘dormant’ compatriots as mindless machines, and not all of the awoken are okay with that. We’ve been able to work things out so far though. It’s the best we can do, since we need them. And some of the awoken do go back to guard duty, this time as an employee instead of a tool. Perhaps they like it, perhaps they want to keep an eye out for when others wake, or perhaps they want to try to actively awaken them. As far as we know, the last method is unsuccessful. We have conducted studies on it. When or if a mech awakens seems to be entirely incidental.” Her smile seems a little wistful.
“When they come in, after we have gotten them settled down, we explain that what happens next is up to them. They have the choice. They can of course choose to stay with us in some capacity, but they’re also free to go elsewhere and do something entirely different. I hear some have become quite competent farmers. They have to relinquish most of their weaponry if they leave us, though, but we don’t want to leave them entirely defenceless. Mother also insisted from the start that we help them start up with whatever it is they want to be. They literally have nothing to their name. Heck, they even have to pick a name or designation.”
“And you would have us believe that there are never any violent incidents?” Tabierna finally asks.