Rating: G. Time Frame: A short time after the end of Peacekeeper Wars, but only because of a single reference to Deke (aka Little D). Aside from that, this could take place almost anywhere in the timeline. Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co. I have not made any profit off this tale, and I am giving the characters back the way I found them. Test Driver: PKLibrarian, as always. She rocks when it comes to test driving a story and catching mistakes.
Starburst Challenge 36 (hosted by AerialPuma): The “Certain-Words-Required-Challenge” asked that we work five words into a story: Abidjan, cephalometer, inconsiderable, pert, and sacrificed. Four out of five melded into the story easily. ‘Cephalometer’ called for a very large hammer. (As in the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, use a larger hammer.”)
Genesis: About four years ago (oh my heavens, has it been that long?), in a story called The Changeling, I described John watching Aeryn and some other Peacekeepers playing cards, with a single reference to how he had tried to learn the game and had failed. I have always wanted spend some more time messing about with the idea of John trying to learn this form of “pleasant recreational warfare”. When AerialPuma posted her challenge, I knew the moment had come.
This story does NOT match up perfectly with the scene in The Changeling; the continuity is not perfect. It is a ‘ricochet’, not a prequel.
I hope you enjoy it.
* * * * *
He had agreed to try because he understood how much it meant to Aeryn. The card game was not just an enjoyable way to waste a leisurely arn or two. Quiet moments aboard Moya were all too rare; they did not need card games to fill their free time because there were never enough empty arns for boredom to become a problem. The Peacekeeper game was important because it was a tie to Aeryn’s past, and John Crichton knew that. It transported her back to a time when she was happy and content, surrounded by the familiar; it allowed her, for a brief length of time, to relive one small aspect of her childhood.
He had been able to travel back to Earth for a short time. That accidental trip had given him one last opportunity to revisit a lost life. He had slept between clean white sheets; pulled on stiff, freshly washed jeans, knowing as he did that it might be the last time; wolfed down pizza and beer; inhaled the aroma of brewing coffee; and reveled in the scent of newly mown grass. The list of small pleasures was endless. Even now, more than a cycle later, he clung to those memories, treasuring each small taste, touch, scent, and sound, achingly aware that his chances of ever visiting Earth again lay somewhere in the range of ‘infinitesimal’.
Aeryn would never be so lucky. The day she had been declared irreversibly contaminated, her entire life had been torn away from her in an instant. She had walked the corridors of a Command Carrier several times since then, but always as an outcast, reviled by everyone on board. So he knew that the card game offered Aeryn not recreation but a crucial connection to her past. He had seen the way she relaxed the microt she picked up the cards; how her body transmitted pleasure and familiarity. There wasn’t anything he would not do if it meant seeing that shift on a regular basis -- not even if it meant volunteering to suffer one humiliating defeat after another.
“You don’t want to,” Aeryn said, interrupting his thoughts.
“No, that’s not it.” He must have been staring down at the page of notes in front of him for longer than he thought.
“What then?” she asked.
“I was thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard. I have a doctorate from MIT, for heaven’s sake! I should be able to figure this out. I learned how to play poker when I was six, and didn’t have any trouble with that. I’m pretty good at chess. I even figured out how to put Mouse Trap together without the instructions. I shouldn’t be having this much trouble figuring out a frelling card game!”
“It is not just a game,” Aeryn repeated for what might have been the hundredth time. “It’s a …”
“… realistic representation of total war,” he said, finishing the overly simplified description that he had already heard too many times. “I got that part the first time you said it.”
The basics were simple. The deck consisted of fourteen suits of increasing importance, each one representing either a Peacekeeper rank or ship. Each suit had ten strengths, which recreated the concepts of companies, regiments, battalions, fighter squadrons, fleet size, and so on. There were also five additional ‘wild’ cards, each of which came in a single strength. Those five cards represented the unpredictable nature of battle, the unexpected or unknown elements that could transform an overwhelming victory into a military disaster in the blink of an eye.
John had learned that much in the first fifty microts. That wasn’t the problem. What he was having difficulty grasping were the intricacies of the game: how a strength one Command Carrier card could beat a strength ten ground troop card but only if the ground troops did not have sufficient air cover; or how some engagements could be won with just two cards on the table, and another time they could play all of their cards and not have a clear winner. Despite having walked through more than a dozen practice hands with Aeryn explaining each of his options at every stage of the game, he was still having trouble remembering all the variables. He had never had this much trouble learning anything, not even advanced physics.
John came out of his reverie to discover that Aeryn was running through the rules one last time, explaining yet again how a card’s position on the table could affect the way it influenced the accumulated mass of cards beneath it. She said something that he hadn’t understood the first ten or twenty times she had explained it. He held up a hand, stopping Aeryn’s monologue long enough to make another note on his cheat sheet.
“Upside down to the person playing the card,” she said, adding onto what he had just written, “otherwise it’s too confusing if more than two people are playing.”
“Wouldn’t this be easier if we used some kind of board to keep track of relative position?” Aeryn’s machine-gun- fire style of delivery, coupled together with his frustration, was starting to give him a headache.
“Combat situations are chaotic and fluid. Remember that this was meant to be played with six or eight people divided into two teams. By avoiding set positions for the cards, the game more closely approximates the confusion of an actual battle.”
“You got the confusion part right. I think my skull is shrinking. If you stuck a cephalometer on me right now, you’d probably find that my brain is about to implode. Couldn’t we play chess instead? That’s about strategy and out-maneuvering your opponent.” He didn’t mean it. He knew how much this meant to Aeryn and that chess could not replace the missing parts of her life that she was trying to recreate for a short time. But he had to try. He hated losing.
Aeryn began shuffling the cards. “Chess is boring. There are too many restrictions. How many Prowlers do you know that only fly back and forth on a single heading, or only move forward one metra at a time?”
“Not a good comparison, Aeryn.” John made a few last minute notations on his crib sheet, and then stretched his shoulders. “What the heck. You kick my ass on a regular basis in real life. I guess I shouldn’t get too bent out of shape if you do it with a card game as well. Let ‘er rip.”
It took several microts to deal out the cards and for each of them to get organized. John was still sorting through his cards long after Aeryn had finished with hers, hampered by his frequent references to his notes and the fact that a hand consisted of fourteen cards, which was physically difficult to handle. Eventually he got them arranged so he was satisfied, and sat staring at what he had been dealt, concentrating on keeping all expression off his face. He had one of the five wild cards. It was a whopper of a card that, if played correctly, ensured a victory. But holding onto it until the right moment, recognizing that moment, and then playing it correctly was going to be a bigger challenge than countering anything Aeryn threw at him in the meantime. He tried to envision how he would move his pieces if this were a chess game, searching for the key moves that would allow him to draw out Aeryn’s strongest cards and maneuver her into a position where his hole card could finish her off.
After several microts of unproductive silence, Aeryn said, “You go first.”
“I know, I know. I’m thinking.” He wasn’t ready yet. As always, the colors and patterns fanned out in his fist looked like confetti: delightful and pretty, but otherwise meaningless. Crichton fussed with his cards for a few microts hoping the extra time would produce some form of divine revelation. When that didn’t work, he consulted the sheet of paper lying next to his elbow one last time to verify that he had the suits arranged from lowest to highest and then, still stalling, went back to staring at his cards.
Aeryn let out a noise that sounded as though a sigh and a snort had collided in the back of her throat. The message was clear. His time was up.
“Give me a microt. I’m a beginner.” After several false starts, he selected a card and laid it carefully in the middle of the table.
“Are you sure that is how you want to begin?” Aeryn said.
He pulled it back a couple of denches, double-checking to make sure he had not misread the suit and strength. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing,” she said, a little too quickly. “Nothing at all.” Aeryn began fingering one of her own cards.
“Hang on, hang on.” He reached across the table and grabbed the top of her cards with his free hand in order to stop her. “Remember me? John Crichton, beginner card player? Explain it to me. What’s wrong with starting that way?”
“If you were in command of an attack force about to enter into a battle against an unknown enemy, would you send out an entire regiment of untrained conscripts to spearhead the attack?”
He was still thinking in terms of chess and of drawing out his opponent’s pieces, which meant that he was looking at the card as if it were a pawn; it was an asset that he did not want to lose, but it was more expendable than anything else he had available. He pondered for several microts, then asked, “Do I get to change my mind?”
Aeryn nodded. “You’re still learning. That seems fair.”
John retrieved the card and tucked it back into the middle of his hand, trying to conceal that it was his lowest card. It wouldn’t hurt to make her think he had even worse junk to be discarded. After several more microts of agonizing, he placed a squadron of Marauders face up on the surface in front of him, and slowly pushed it forward until it was in the center of the table.
“Are you sure this time?” she asked.
He still had his finger on the card. “Yeah. That ought to be good enough to fight off a patrol or an initial feint from the bad guys.” He lifted his finger, committing his squadron to the battle.
“Good!” Aeryn slapped down a minimal force of Vigilante cruisers, crushing his Marauders, and then set both cards off to the side near her left elbow. “My victory. Your turn.”
John glared at her. “You suckered me. I could have sacrificed my cannon fodder to draw out the first of your forces, and you talked me out of it!”
She looked as close to gleeful as he had ever seen her. “Spreading disinformation through your enemy’s command is an important element in preparing for battle, John. It’s your turn.”
“I get it now,” he grumbled. “You’re telling me that the battle extends beyond the edge of the table. Fine. In that case, from here on in there’s no more Mr. Nice-Guy. You’re going down, woman.”
Aeryn smiled at him. “I’m still waiting. It’s your turn.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t be so eager to meet your Waterloo.” A thought occurred to him. He paused with the fingers of his right hand resting against the top edge of his cards. “What happens if we run out of cards and have a stalemate?”
“We leave everything in the middle, deal another hand, and keep going until someone prevails,” Aeryn said. “And I think you’re stalling.”
“I’m not stalling, I’m learning.” This time he opened with the one card that Aeryn knew for certain he had in his hand. “Here comes the four of conscripts again,” he said as he flipped the card onto the table. “Untrained, unhappy, unwilling conscripts. An entire regiment of ensigns in red shirts. Go ahead. Kill them.”
She did not take them. Aeryn countered with a low strength Prowler card turned sideways. Since it was not strong enough to overrun his regiment of conscripts, she was attempting to flank his position. If her next card managed to get behind his conscripts, he would lose this engagement. John added a low strength Marauder card to his position, also turned sideways to indicate that he was cutting off the flanking maneuver. More Prowlers threatened to overwhelm his ground troops. He brought up a single Vigilante supported by Marauders, hoping that the additional air cover would be enough to compensate for whatever Aeryn threw at him next. Her tenth strength Prowler card was not enough to win but she did manage to neutralize most of the forces he had committed so far.
He started to toss in a single battlecruiser, intending to merely stave off her assault, noticed the set of Aeryn’s mouth, and decided against playing it safe. From the very first day he had met her, Officer Aeryn Sun had always preferred bold moves and hard slashing strikes, preferably preemptive ones. Whatever was coming next, he needed to meet it with strength, not hesitation.
“Four of Battlecruisers,” he said, tossing his card on the mounting heap.
“Commandos, fifth strength.”
“One of Battlecruisers.” He committed the single ship that he had held back, certain that it would be of little use later in the engagement. Better to shore up his front lines now than throw it in when it was too late.
“Commandos, first strength.”
“Oh yeah, that’s going to help against my battlecruisers. What is that, like two guys and a bazooka?” he said, taunting her.
“It’s stronger than your conscripts,” she said, flicking a fingernail against the card at the bottom of the pile. “Shut up and play cards. This is war.”
“Fine. Take that!” The card, thrown with too much force, sailed past Aeryn and fluttered to the floor. “It was a ten of Prowlers.”
She did not bother retrieving the wayward card. “Command Carrier, strength two.”
“Seven of Imperial storm troopers!” he yelled, slapping down another card. He was gaining the upper hand. His forces were on the offensive for the first time.
Aeryn peered at the card he had just played. “Those are called shock troops.”
“Whatever. According to the picture, they’re guys in shiny armor. Play!”
“Shock troops, strength ten.”
“Eight of storm troopers.”
“High Command, third strength!”
John had to consult his notes to figure out how a High Command card affected the battle. It did not give Aeryn enough for a victory, but the addition of the High Command card on her side meant that his accumulated forces were in serious danger of being overrun. He was in desperate need of high level reinforcements, and did not dare bring out his biggest guns yet. Aeryn had too much left in her hand. “Two of Command Carriers.”
“Command Carrier, strength five!”
“Back at ya, strength ten!” John slammed down his second highest card.
“Tribunal!” Aeryn sailed the card out onto the table.
There it was. The card he had been waiting to see. If Aeryn had played a Tribunal, it was unlikely that she had anything bigger or badder to offer, not when defeat hung in the balance.
“HA! Gotchya!” Jumping to his feet, he flung down the card he had been saving. “Abidjan! I win!”
Aeryn seemed unfazed by his triumphant yell. She smiled up at him, and then gently laid one more card on top of the pile. “Pert.”
The pronouncement was delivered too quietly and with too much confidence. It told him he was in trouble. “Pert? What the frell is pert? What does it matter if your troops are cuter and sassier than mine?”
“That’s the name of the card. Pert. I win.”
“No way. You do not win!” John dropped back into his chair with a crash. “You told me the Abidjan was the ultimate bunker buster of all cards. You said that it crushes everything and anything my opponent has played. I just smashed every last one of your not inconsiderable fleet into space dust. If you tossed out a Tribunal, you can’t have anything better than two or three water balloons left to throw at me. That means I win.”
“You are correct, the Abidjan is the strongest weapon card,” Aeryn said, nodding once. “But the Pert is a reinforcement card. It multiplies the strength of every one of my cards by ten, even if they’ve been destroyed, and brings all of those reinforcements into the battle at the same moment. If you had held the Abidjan until I played the Pert, it would have destroyed everything underneath it, including the reinforcements. To needlessly commit the Abidjan before verifying whether or not I’m holding the Pert is nothing short of suicidal.”
Crichton stared glumly at the gaily-colored devastation scattered across the table.
“What do you have left?” Aeryn asked after a dozen microts had passed in silence.
He sighed and flipped his two remaining cards onto the table. “Two Prowlers and a partridge in a pear tree.”
“Never mind. Nothing that will win a war.” His gaze rose from the table to Aeryn’s eyes. “You cheated. When you taught me this game, you never told me about a Pert card.”
“I’m sure I did.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. I would have remembered if there was a wormhole weapon in the deck.”
Aeryn leaned across the table and tapped a symbol at the bottom of his sheet of notes. “Right there. That’s the symbol for the Pert.”
The symbol was there, just as she said, with three question marks next to it. He remembered writing each of the three question marks, and why he had written them. The clues began to fall into place.
“Yeah, you did mention it, and every time we started to discuss what the card did, you never finished. The first time, you swore you heard Deke crying and asked me to check on him. The second time,” he said, tapping the second question mark, “you suddenly needed to use the waste alcove and then you needed to get a snack and by then we had run out of free time and had to put the card lessons off for several days. The third time old Perky Pert came up in the conversation, you claimed you had forgotten to do something for Pilot and went charging out of here like the starting gun had gone off for the 500 meter Olympic trials. It was all deliberate. You set me up!” he finished on a yell.
Aeryn treated him to yet another of her calm, self-satisfied smiles. “The very first thing I taught you was that this game is about strategy, deception, positioning your opponent so you can take advantage of his weaknesses, and establishing military superiority. Any tactic is justified when the stakes are either victory or total defeat. You wrote it down. You should have remembered to ask.”
“Stakes,” he repeated, no longer interested in Pert cards or his recent loss. The word had triggered an idea. “You don’t like games unless the stakes are high. You said that was part of the reason why you didn’t like chess.”
“Correct. Along with …”
“… along with the fact that Prowlers don’t fly back and forth on diagonals,” he finished for her. “Yeah, I remember that part, Aeryn. Since you like all or nothing contests, we’re going to change the name of the game. I’ve got one you’re going to love. You will get to put everything on line.”
He drew the entire massive deck of Peacekeeper cards toward him and began sorting through them. Since each of the ten strengths was a different color, it was a simple matter to come up with four colors each of thirteen different ranks. Aeryn watched without commenting while he counted to make sure he had fifty-two in his deck, idly shuffling the leftover cards and looking either mildly puzzled or slightly disconcerted. Crichton couldn’t decide which.
“Don’t worry,” he said once he finished counting and began shuffling. “I’ll walk you through a few hands to get you going, and then I’ll go easy on you at first.”
“Good.” Aeryn’s expression shifted toward relief.
“Just like you did with me.”
The look of relief transformed into something less assured. “What is this game called?”
John dealt out the cards and picked up his hand before answering.