Be So Bad They Can Ignore You
Erik packed his bag and went to the restroom to wash his face. When he got out, the suit wearing cowboy boots was waiting behind the door.
“Hello, I’m Natalya Hades. Can I have word?” she said.
Erik frowned. “No,” he grunted, and then tried to walk away.
Hades planted both hands on the walls of the narrow hallway, blocking his passage.
“I must insist.”
Erik scowled. Hades felt like his uncle Jeremy at his most bullheaded and unreasonable. Politeness didn’t work on such people. So he just roughly pushed himself past.
“Please, Mr. Ransom, this is important!” Hades persisted, grabbing his elbow with surprising strength.
“How do you know my name?” Erik demanded.
Hades tapped her left temple.
“You were thinking it.”
Cold sweat sprung on Erik’s hands. His heart started to race and his breathing turned rapid and shallow. Though he’d been warned he’d meet a wizard recruiter and prepared himself for the eventuality, now that he was facing a real one, all he could think was: I can’t do this.
“Let go,” he whispered.
“I will after we have our talk,” said Hades, tightening her grip.
Erik wrenched his arm out of her grasp and started to run.
He skittered to a halt. The other two suits were on their feet, and they were eyeing him predatorily. Two soldiers were blocking the exits, and the rest were arranging themselves like wolves on a hunt. The woman who’d been reading The Once and Future King was rising from her chair. She had the vexed but determined look of someone getting ready to engage, if reluctantly. Everyone else looked dumbfounded.
“Oi! No harassing other customers!” Susan Tate barked.
Those who were on their feet ignored her. Erik didn’t like the way the suits were putting a hand inside their jackets. The way the soldiers closed in on him was positively sinister.
Erik shot a side glance at the Tates. Their eyes met. Susan nodded, and Erik shifted his weight.
Erik vaulted over the counter. Jane screamed. Sam stepped aside and let him run pass. Erik rushed through the coffee roaster room, flung the back door open and jumped outside. A soldier was waiting for him twenty feet to his right. Erik turned to the left and saw a dead-end. Undaunted, he ran towards the wall and crawled up the surface using qi.
He heard a long stream of curses as he flung himself over a concrete half wall and landed on the hood of a car. As he gathered his bearings, Erik realized was in a parking garage. Are you supposed to hide or run when you’re being pursued? He wondered wildly.
There was a shout far too close. Erik dashed to opposite direction and hit another half wall. He looked down, and primal fear gripped his chest as he considered the dizzying height. Still, he climbed over the ledge and slowly made his way down like a gecko. He almost collapsed from relief when his feet hit the ground.
Erik ran blindly. Pedestrians jumped out of his way as he barreled through. Rapid footsteps followed him at a distance. The seams of his pants bothered him every time he bent his knees. His backpack chaffed his shoulders, but Erik couldn’t bring himself to toss it. The chaffing stopped when he remembered to buckle the chest and waist straps.
He made a sharp right to avoid crashing into an old lady using a walker. This led him into a tight alleyway. At the other end of the alley, there was a person clad in blue.
It was the woman who’d been reading The Once and Future King.
A sharp pain stabbed Erik’s knees as he forced himself to stop. The woman closed their distance at an alarming clip. Flailing and panicking, Erik turned 180 degrees and tried to run away.
He flung backward instead. Strong forearms pressed on his windpipe as he thudded against a solid body. Erik struggled to break free, but his limbs felt like they were wading through molasses. He couldn’t scream.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to hurt you,” a female voice with a bastardized Oxford accent whispered.
Erik gurgled his disbelief.
“Don’t stay in the city. Run for the hills. Don’t stop,” The voice instructed. Then the arms around his neck loosened. “Go!”
Erik was shoved out of the alley. He staggered and looked back. To his shock, the woman was nowhere to be seen.
Someone hollered view halloo. Erik bolted without a second thought. Run for the hills…run for the hills…were there any hills nearby? Oh. Yes. The Capital Crescent Trail. He ran there every other weekend. After the third bridge, it was practically wilderness. He could cut through the undergrowth.
Erik sped up. The footsteps that hounded him grew fainter. Once he hit the trail, Erik knew he could lose his pursuers.
He ran for what felt like hours. All he could hear was the sound of his breathing and footsteps. A crow sometimes punctuated the quiet with its cawing. Other times, he’d notice a white tail deer stare at him through the thick undergrowth. He encountered no people. Even so, he didn’t stop until it was too dark to see an inch ahead of him, at which point he collapsed at the foot of a tree.
For a while, Erik could only sit and breathe. His mouth was dry and he could taste iron in the back of his throat. Then Erik remembered the water bottle in his backpack’s side pouch and reached for it, his hands weak and trembling. He instantly felt better as he drank in messy gulps.
Erik checked his cellphone after he’d drained his water bottle. Sam and Susan sent him forty-odd texts between them, and their messages grew ever more frantic as the timestamp increased. His first instinct was to reply and reassure them he wasn’t dead. But then he remembered: although he’d disabled all location tracking on his cellphone, replying to their texts could expose them all. So he called Rena from a payphone.
“It’s me, sis,” Erik said in their father’s childhood tongue as soon as the line opened.
He heard a sharp inhale, followed by a low exhale. “They found you, eh? So who was it? Did you get their names?”
“I counted fourteen, but got only one name: Natalya Hades.”
“I know Nat Hades. Retired Lieutenant Colonel. Air Force. She’s good at her job.”
“She tried to hunt me down like a criminal! That’s not the most persuasive way to recruit people to your cause, is it?” Erik shouted.
“I doubt that’s what happened,” said Rena. “Mind, I’m not doubting you were chased. It’s just more likely there were multiple interested parties present, and they jumped the gun when Hades ambushed you. Did she corner you in a bathroom?”
“Right outside of it.”
“Yep, that sounds like Hades,” said Rena, her tone verging on fond. “She would’ve barged into to your stall if you didn’t lock the door.”
“She’s a menace!” Erik growled.
“Oh, she is, absolutely,” Rena said, now sounding like she was humoring him. “Now describe the others.”
Erik told her about the two middle-aged suits, whose faces he wouldn’t be able to pick out from a lineup even if his life depended on it, the squad of army soldiers, and the woman reading The Once and Future King.
“The army guys are likely under Major Simo’s command,” Rena said. “Did you see a six foot Valkyrie?”
“Must’ve thought you’re not worth her personal attention. But after today, you will be.”
Erik stifled an F-bomb from bursting out of his mouth.
“The suits could’ve been anyone, and not necessarily Feds,” Rena continued. “Not sure who the white-haired girl is. Could be a new player. Those are always unpredictable.”
“I don’t care who they are! I’m not working for any of them!”
“You may not have the choice.”
“Why? Can you just spit it out?” Erik wanted to cry, he was so upset. “You were right, okay? I went into this blind and stupid. I should’ve listened to you. Now just tell me—what’s going on?”
There was a long pause, and then Rena said, “I’m not talking about it over the phone. Get your butt here.”
Erik couldn’t help himself. After some vile swearing, he snapped, “I’m at an unmanned gas station in the middle of a godforsaken forest. I don’t know my way back to civilization. So talk now or pick me up.”
“Send me your GPS coordinates.”
David and Erik found each other about forty minutes later. Erik wanted to hug his brother-in-law or else burst into tears, but after years of people calling him Rena’s little sister, by mistake or by malice, made him shy away from such displays of emotion. So he just vented to David, who was gratifyingly sympathetic.
“You poor bastard. That had to be the worst introduction to wizards. I have to say this tho’: you probably met the craziest of the crazies.”
“I don’t care. One crazy is one too many. I’m done. I’m so fruitfully done.”
“Yeah, quit while you still can.”
David and Erik made it back to the townhouse in an hour. Rena was waiting for them at the living room.
“Well?” Erik demanded, as soon as he took a seat.
“First of all,” Rena started, “I don’t know everything. I only sound like I do. Second, I didn’t get into qi to master it, but to make sure I wouldn’t be a sucker.”
Erik studied his sister for a moment, and then said: “Explain.”
“It’s an application of Pascal’s Wager,” Rena said. “Suppose qi becomes the next big thing. The qi user wins, and the non-user loses. Then suppose qi remains an unknown fringe skill. In this case, the current status quo stays. Do you follow?”
Erik nodded once.
“You may believe qi will become the next big thing, or you may believe it will remain obscure,” Rena went on. “You cannot be sure which outcome will pan out. But trying to figure out which one has the greater probability of being right is not as important as figuring out the consequences of being wrong. Do I need to spell them out for you?”
Erik shook his head. “If qi stays obscure when you believed otherwise, then you lose the opportunity to do better things with your life. But if qi becomes the next big thing, then the more you know, the better off you are. You don’t have to be good. You just have to be better than the competition. But if you don’t start early, catching up may be impossible.”
Rena’s dark lips curled up in approval. “This brings me to my next bit of reasoning. Learning a bit of qi is a good insurance policy for either case, but then the question becomes: to what extent? You don’t want it to consume you to the point you have nothing else left. Just look at the people who chased you. Dreadful, aren’t they? And stupid. They’ve put all their eggs in the qi basket and can’t take it out.”
“You haven’t answered the extent question,” Erik said.
“Patience, baby brother,” Rena said coyly. “Even if we disregard Hades and her ilk, you have to remember there are those who’ve known qi since they were suckling infants. David, case in point. They’ve worked longer and harder at it, and you and I, the talented late comers, can’t win them in the mastery game. So the only way for us to play the game is to not play it at all.”
“How?” Erik asked.
“Like any other human-made product, qi has its providers and consumers,” Rena said. “Its cost-benefit distribution pattern fits that of technology. That is to say, the consumers are the primary beneficiaries. Therefore to get the best bang for your buck, you should not focus on skill acquisition, since it’s on the manufacturing side of the equation. Instead, you should focus on learning what qi can do and how to best consume it.” Rena regarded Erik beadily. “This is the reason why I decided to be the person who identifies potential qi consumers and finds ways qi can meet their wants and needs. This way I don’t have to be a qi expert personally. I just need to know its capabilities.”
Erik gave Rena a flat look. “You got into marketing and sales.”
“I prefer the term ‘research’,” said Rena delicately.
“Marketing research. Whatever,” Erik found he couldn’t bear to look at his sister anymore, so he studied the blisters on his feet.
There was a beat.
“You’re angry and upset,” Rena observed.
“Not at you,” said Erik, his head still bowed.
“You disagree with my reasoning, then?”
He just hated it, pure and simple. Though he agreed with every step and conclusion, they made him want to hurl. It was as though someone took the dove he lovingly raised, butchered it, placed its plucked and gutted body in front of him, and told him how he should cook and eat it. He never understood how Rena could be so comfortable thinking like this when all he wanted to do was scream: Why? Why does have to be this way? I don’t want this.
“You’re a craftsman and scholar at heart,” Rena commented. “Perhaps in a different world, this wouldn’t have been an issue.”
That took Erik aback. For that one moment, Rena almost sounded kind—sympathetic. But why?
“What do you mean?” he asked, now looking up.
Rena stared back for a moment, her dark eyes cool and unreadable, and ignored the question.
“As someone who monitors qi appetite, I know what world leaders want. What they want most is only a theoretical possibility, as far as I know, but if realized, it would unmake our world.”
Erik had no desire to know, but still asked: “What is it?”
“Power over information,” said Rena. “Even if you’ve only read chapter three of Frost, you can appreciate this point. Qi can touch anything that which is real. Information is real, therefore qi can touch it. What if there exists a person who can use qi to access digital data? No information system will be safe from this person. Even if he or she doesn’t exist right now, isn’t it possible to raise such a person? Find someone talented in both qi and IT and see if they can figure it out. Plenty of people will gladly break every law and moral code to have him or her under their control. What should you do, then?”
Erik felt so hollowed out he couldn’t even open his mouth. So David, equally heartsick by the looks of him, answered:
“Be so bad they can ignore you.”