Short Story: “Ping fa”

Before you can do something, you have to think it. (This is part of a series related to my novel, “Burnout Fever”, which is available for the Nook reader and app. Catch up from the links listed here or here.”)

Part 3 of a series
By P. Orin Zack

“Looks like someone already thought of it,” Gisella Killarney said as she set a double-tall mocha down in front of Melissa Fox. Constitutional Evolution’s redheaded gamer slid into the second chair at the small table and glanced at the sketch her blond friend was touching up. Both wore light jackets and jeans. They’d been chatting over an aimless walk through Georgetown.

Melissa fuzzed out some graphite with her thumb, then set her pencil down and reached for the cup. “For real? Sun Tzu’s been abducted by peaceniks?”

“Yep. The University of Victoria brought it up at the ‘Art of War’ Symposium in Beijing. 1998. They dubbed it ‘peacefare’. Or, in the Chinese, ping-fa.”

“Well, foo on that! Where’d they go with it?”

Gisella took a sip, and eyed a young stud just entering the D.C. coffee shop. “Not where you were, that’s for sure. But they did make some good points we can use.”


“Yeah. Like recognizing that unilateral disarmament ain’t gonna cut it. But they seemed more concerned with remapping Sun Tzu’s underlying constants than with the process itself. The folks from BC figured you still need some kind of moral law for the foundation of it all, and then swapped out Heaven and Earth for science and relevant solutions as the context it all happens in.”

Melissa watched the busy barista behind the counter for a few seconds, then flipped to a fresh page and fluttered the pencil between her fingers. “What about leadership? I thought Sun Tzu was all about top-down command and control, generals moving soldiers around, like pawns in some live-fire board game.”

“He was. Of course, that’s part of the process he was modeling. For peacefare – ping fa – the community is the actor. But they wimped out and pegged it on nations, which cuts the people out of the action anyway.”

“Then let’s lay out our own take on it, and see where we end up.” She flipped her pencil to writing position and tapped the paper. “The way I see it, the process Sun Tzu was modeling comes down to four activities. Assessing the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, devising actions to exploit those weaknesses, amassing tools to implement the actions, and then engaging the enemy.”

“Um.” The guy Gisella had noticed earlier was standing nearby, cup in hand. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Melissa looked up at him. Five-eight or so, face fur, puzzled expression. “You’ve studied Sun Tzu?”

He shrugged. “Only tangentially. Mind if I join you? This sounds interesting.”

“Pull up a seat. What’s your interest?”

He swung a chair from the next table around, and slid in. “I’m Richard, by the way.” He exchanged handshakes with them. “The Art of War sort of fell on me one day at a book store. I was looking for something on psychic self-defense, and thought it might be useful to get something on strategy under my belt.”

Gisella grinned. “Fell on you?”

“Yeah. Off a high shelf. Books have a way of making themselves known when they want me to read them. I have a tendency to go with synchronicity. So I figured your chat might be why I dropped in here just now.”

“Works for me. So what did we forget?”

Richard tapped the list Melissa had just scribbled. “This third step, making the weapons. That generally happens well before Sun Tzu’s Commander has assessed the situation and understands the dynamics. He’s usually stuck with tools that came from some earlier conflict. So you really only have three steps.” He smiled at Gisella. “Where were you going with the thought? It sounded like you were about to run a mutation.”

“Kinda, yeah. We’re using him to see what peacefare would be like.”

“Oh, I get it. Like warfare. Sure. So, what was you’re thought?”

Melissa drew an arrow from ‘making tools’ towards the top of the page, and struck out the last part of the second step. “Well, instead of the commander coming up with ways to attack your enemy’s weaknesses, the community would develop actions that use the combined capabilities of both sides for mutual benefit.”

Gisella waited for her to write the revision, then gestured at the first line. “We should also change ‘enemy’ to ‘counterpart’ or something. Is there a better word for that?”

“Not that I know of. This is turning into a language problem, too. But what—.”

“So there you are, Dickie!” The conversational din was shattered by a booming voice from the open doorway, its owner a diminutive Goth in an oversize black frock.

Richard snorted. “Crap. He followed me.”

“Who’s that?” Melissa asked quietly.

“Calls himself Greythorne. Fancies himself a darkside mage.” He rose and started towards the door. “Can we take this outside?”

Greythorne planted his feet. “Nay. We do battle here.”

The barista had by this time stepped out from the behind the counter. “Both of you. Out of here or I call the cops.”

Richard motioned the patrons to stay calm as he made his way towards the door. “Like I told you earlier,” he said calmly to Greythorne, “there’s more to magic than just throwing spells at people. Ever heard of the Rede? ‘Harm none’? Anyone with power has an obligation to use it wisely. Doesn’t matter who you are – president, someone’s boss, a parent, anyone. That’s what evil is, Greythorne, or whatever your mother named you. It’s not what you do. It’s why you do it.”

Greythorne stepped towards Richard, and raised his arm, palm open, towards him. “I curse you!” he intoned. “May the spirit of death ride your soul into the very fortress of Hades!”

Melissa flipped a page and started sketching furiously. Under her fingers, the coffee shop transformed into something out of a graphic novel, with real and fantasy elements interwoven around the two battling figures, one garbed, the other in street clothes. She feathered in visuals for the imagined bolts of energy the intruder was casting past frightened bystanders.

Richard stood his ground, seemingly immune to the stream of nonsense that Melissa sketched as half-formed demons in the shadows.

“You really don’t get it, do you? Death can’t scare someone who doesn’t believe in it. None of your curses have any power except what people are frightened into giving it. Get out of here. Go spend some time learning what magic is really all about.”

“Think I can’t hurt you, huh? Fine. I don’t really give a crap. I’ll just go after your two friends there, instead!” With that, he wheeled towards the two women and held both palms towards them, a dark leer on his face. “Take this!”

For a split second, Melissa felt something tear through her, a sickening stench passed her nose, and she reeled from a sudden wrenching pain. Then it vanished, sending a shiver down her spine. By the time she’d refocused her eyes, Greythorne was face down on the floor, with Richard pressing the man’s wrist up between his shoulder blades. A small cheer had gone up among the patrons, and the barista was waving a cell phone in the air.

Richard pushed the arm tighter. “Here’s your choice, jerk. Either you leave now, or I’ll hold you here for the police. What’s it to be?”

He grimaced. “I’ll go.”

Once the excitement died down, Richard returned to his seat. “Sorry about that, ladies. I guess you know why I was looking for that self-defense book, now.”

“The heck with that,” Gisella said, waving it off. “What just happened?”

“Yeah,” Melissa added. “Whatever he was doing, I felt something.”

“I’m not surprised. You are an artist, after all.” He peered over her arm at the sketch. “That means you’re tuned into the kind of energy that people build their personal fantasies on. His is just out of control, that’s all.”

“But you stopped him. How’d you do that?”

He shrugged. “Sun Tzu. He was engaging you. That left his flank unprotected. But, like I said, I’m more interested in how you plan to transform his treatise on war–.”

“Strategy, really,” Gisella corrected.

“Strategy, then. You’re transforming a book on strategy into one about making peace. I’m all for that. How can I help?”

Gisella chuckled. “You already have.”


“Yeah. This version’s all about a community effort, not command and control.”


“Welcome to the community. There’s some people I’d like you to meet.”


[Afterward: the story continues in “Symbolism and Intent“]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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