Mr. Quest made people out of cards. He took a deck of cards, hearts and spades and diamonds and clubs, and he gave them little heads and little arms and skinny legs to stand on. The kings and queens had little crowns, and the knaves had little hats. All the other cards were soldiers.
Mr. Quest said that he got the idea from a book called Alice in Wonderland.
Mostly they just ran into each other. They were kind of stupid, Jinki thought, but it was a marvelous gift, even so. Jinki wasn't allowed a lot of toys, and anyhow, the adults were always too busy to make frivolous things for him. Jinki had learned to say frivolous from Mother.
Mother said the word with a sort of sneer, as if it was… not a bad word, exactly, but a word that didn't make her happy. Some words she said with bright seriousness. Mother was nicest when she was saying words like sub-committee and utilitarian viewpoint. Jinki thought they were nice words too, they sounded like you were beating out a rhythm with a spoon on a saucepan.
Mother said Mr. Quest was a very frivolous man. Jinki thought that was true, but he also knew that Mr. Quest was in a lot of sub-committees. Mr. Quest was on more sub-committees than anyone ever, so it was all right for Jinki to spend time with him.
The other interesting thing Mr. Quest had, other than Alice in Wonderland, was a garden. No, well, everybody had a garden, but Mr. Quest had a frivolous garden. Mother hadn't actually said so, but Jinki knew frivolous when he saw it. Mr. Quest had the most interesting pots, delicate and melon-shaped and a color he said was called jade. They were really old and priceless pots, and they were made to put tea and things in, a long time ago, back when there were kings outside a card pack, and even emperors. But Mr. Quest thought that the pots had retired now, being so old. When you retire, Mr. Quest said, you should make it your business to do lovely and pointless things. So he grew flowers in the ancient pots.
Jinki liked big, colorful flowers, though, with lots of petals. The flowers in Mr. Quest's garden weren't that interesting. They were small and only had about five petals and they were boring colors like white and pale blue and yellow.
"Ain't no rocks in the plains, ain't no rocks in the sea, ain't no rocks but the rocks that come when the gods in the sky do a wee." Jinki laughed so much he was almost sick. He'd heard of falling stars, of course, and he'd even seen a few, but he'd never been told that they were the gods' wee. It was the best story he had ever heard.
"You can wish on them," said Mr. Quest.
"I know," said Jinki. "But that's only pretend."
"You'd be surprised," said Mr. Quest. "Interesting stuff, rocks, anyhow. Full of stories."
"Really?" said Jinki.
"It's difficult to find rocks on this part of the planet, of course, else I'd show you. Aye." Mr. Quest liked to say aye. It meant yes. "Years of erosion, that means the wind and water broke bits off the mountain along that way," he pointed east. "And brought them down here, to be dust."
"They're gone now," said Mr. Quest. "Eroded. You can see them if you look through Time."
"I'm not allowed," said Jinki. "Mother says it'll cause a pa-ra-dox." He savored the word. "Mr. Quest?"
"Why are you in so many sub-committees?"
"When you're older and sadder you'll understand better, or worse, or the same," said Mr. Quest. When he said things you heard a second voice echoing the final words, like a chant or a song, softly, like you were hearing it with your mind rather than with your ears. "Tricksters need a place, a still point in the chaos potential (chaos potential). Like the middle of a see-saw, lad, I shall have to get about making you one of those, one of these days (one of these days). But – ah - also a place from which the chaos extends, trickles out and gets bigger and bigger (and bigger and bigger and bigger), but not so powerful a place that the chaos destroys (destroys). I wouldn't want to be president, no, no (no no no no no)."
"I'd like to be president," said Jinki. "I'd like to see a rock, Mr. Quest."
He said it because you just had to say things to Mr. Quest, and then they happened.
"Well, that's easy, lad. It's as easy as anything, if you think a little with your great big head."
"Mother," said Jinki, as she was getting ready to tuck him into the mirror that night. "What's a Trickster?"
"It's a random error," said Mother. "It's an engineered random error, Jinki. Mr. Quest is a Trickster."
"What does that mean?" said Jinki, brightening up now that she was answering. Mother didn't always answer questions.
"You know the Rathki, dear?"
"Yeah?" He knew a lot about the Rathki, though he'd never met one. He'd read that they were the Mathematicians of the Universe, which was a bit annoying, because Jinki was made to learn math for hours and hours and hours and no one ever called him a Mathematician of the Universe. The Rathki were cool looking though, because they had crystalline brains and bodies. Miss Pillow said that they were made of Carbon, which humans like Mother were also made of, but Carbon came in different disguises. Mr. Quest said that Carbon was the Trickster of the Universe.
Jinki didn't know exactly what he was made of, because Miss Pillow hadn't got to the 'corporeal bodies' the humans made for the Kai people yet. He did know what corporeal meant, it meant solid. Mother said that there was plenty of time to learn, but Jinki thought that was only because Mother didn't like to think about Jinki being adopted. Mother wanted to think that she'd given birth to Jinki herself.
"Well," said Mother, radiating disapproval. "The Rathki believe that civilization rises only because of the random error, events no one can predict. If you have the usual probability math governing events then you'll only ever get unicellular organisms, or maybe just no life at all, because life is a random error."
"But doesn't math say nothing is random?" said Jinki, hesitantly. He was good at math, but what he'd meant to say was that, actually, Alice in Wonderland said nothing was random even if it appeared to be so, and he knew Alice in Wonderland was math in disguise, sort of.
"Very good," said Mother, and smiled. She was beautiful when she smiled, her brain glowed a wonderful orange color. "That's the problem of course. It's a load of nonsense. Things arise from other things, even if we can't predict it." She sighed. "There are different schools of thought, Jinki. The Rathki think that if they have Mr. Quest be random and do random things long enough, they'll learn something important about the Universe. They think the Universe is designed to even out the random errors in the space-time fabric." She rolled her eyes, and Jinki could tell that this was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard in her life. "Our homeworld gets so much help from the Rathki, we've gone and taken up all their silly ideas." She gestured to say preparation was done, and he went into the mirror. She kissed it. "Now go to sleep, Jinbaby."
"Mr. Quest?" said Jinki, one cold evening. "Why aren't there other children in the colony?"
It was one of those questions that just didn't occur to you until you eavesdropped on someone talking about it. Mr. Quest was unusually serious.
"Because even if the colony dies Jinki, you can't (you can't). Light doesn't die, you could hide in the fragments of mirrors and speckles of glass (speckles of glass) until the rescue mission got in with a new body for you. Human babies would die in the toxic world (toxic world) if the colony failed."
"That's sad," said Jinki. "Did the government say you can't bring human children Mr. Quest?"
"Aye, they did Jinki. But we needed a child, we did. I asked. My Trickster brain said to me, ask for a child. They can't say no (can't say no), when the Trickster asks (Trickster asks). That would defeat the whole experiment."
"What experiment?" said Jinki, interested. He loved experiments. Instead of Miss Pillow droning on and on, her brain the color of wet sand, sometimes they did experiments in his special classes, which were fun and Miss Pillow's brain went a pretty, pretty blue color. And sometimes, on experiment days, the other grown-ups helped set things up. That was fun, because Father said that in real human School Cities, you had lots of students and lots of teachers. But Jinki didn't want to go to one of those, of course. Then he wouldn't see Mother every day.
Mr. Quest laughed. It wasn't a very nice laugh. "It's sad and you don't need to be sad yet, because sadness is a thing of great proportions that won't fit in your little head. That's why it's so uncomfortable to be sad, Jinki, (Jinki), because it's too big to fit inside you."
That evening Jinki put all the card-people inside the anti-gravity ball and watched them all scream as they tumbled and crashed into each other. It was a cruel thing to do, but they weren't real people. They were just robots. He would never be mean to real people.
"Guinea pigs," said Mother, bitterly. "Lab rats. To test their stupid theories."
"Flirting with death," said Father, who, Jinki knew, was a frivolous man. "Makes you feel alive, honey. Makes your blood pound like the drums in a rock song, honey. My honey. Come and dance."
"What ridiculous nonsense," said Mother, but Jinki could just make out that her brain had gone the nice red color it did when Father made her happy and not angry. "We have our child to think of."
"It is a glorious, glorious feeling," said Father. "To have a child that cannot die."
"The odd thing is that they're so stupid," said someone, and Jinki thought that was such a mean thing to say. "You'd assume that a species made out of light would think faster than any other sentient creature."
"That's uninformed garbage," said Mother's voice. "They are faster, for your information," she added, in that imperious voice that Jinki loved when it wasn't directed at him. Mother was badass in committee meetings. She was probably sneering, too. "But they have to learn to exist inside Time, in order to interact with us, and live inside synthetic bodies with the conventional senses, it zaps them. It's difficult in ways we can't imagine, to be trapped in a meatsuit." What Mother meant was that the other lady couldn't imagine it, because she was stupid. Mother was clever. "They have to get used to it, Kendra, and that takes hundreds of years. Jinki isn't allowed to look outside Time just for that purpose. If he knew the feeling, he would do it constantly." There was a pause. "And some say it'll be a paradox, because he's entwined with a human timeline, since we can't just ignore Time like the Kai do. Load of nonsense, I suspect, but it scares him enough so that he doesn't do it."
"He can't even sleep until we put him inside the mirror," Father added. "It's damned difficult to coax him out after the minute is up, he says it's so much nicer in there, poor little thing."
It was nicer inside the mirror, but Jinki liked having a body. You could touch things and go where you wanted, not just bounce everywhere because you didn't have a choice.
"It's a blessing he's such an obedient child," said another voice that Jinki felt like he ought to recognize. In a few years, Mother said, he'd be able to identify voices much better. Jinki had to learn to maneuver the senses like the human children did, naturally.
"He's very well behaved," said Mother, proudly.
"They gave me a Kai child and ancient pots and Alice in Wonderland," said Mr. Quest, sadly. "They gave me madness inside my robot skull (robot skull) and a place in all the sub-committees to my heart's desire (desire desire desire). They gave me all of you and all of your lives. You must rise against them and destroy them all! (all! all! all!)"
"He's a robot?" screeched Jinki.
"Destroy the Rathki?" yelled everybody else.
Mr. Quest shrugged. "Random event generator, remember, it is my job to voice the ridiculous."
Mother sighed. "A tempting suggestion, Mr. Quest, if not a practical one."
The experiment, Mother explained when Jinki wouldn't stop asking, went like this:
You had three colonies on the planet. One had a Trickster, that one was theirs; they didn't necessarily have to listen to the Trickster, he just had to be there. One had no Trickster and all decisions were made by a coin-toss; the colony could not disobey the coin, if they did, the experiment terminated for them and they were released to go home. The third was a conventional colony of the sort Earthmen had favored for centuries, that was the control. Rescue teams were constantly on standby in case anything went wrong.
Then the Rathki just waited to see what would happen.
It had been three years now. The coin-toss colony was shut down after a week into the experiment. The other two colonies were neither thriving nor deteriorating (which was a really good word, so Jinki memorized it). The Rathki provided all resources and technology, and humans had always wanted to colonize this particular planet because of the plutonium reserves, Mother said. After the experiment concluded, the Rathki had arranged for the world to become Earth territory. It wasn't a bad exchange in turn for humoring a bit of Rathki frivolousness.
"Well," said Father, to Mother. "They said symbolic algebra was stupid too, honey."
"What difference has having a Trickster made?" said Mother. "Whenever he suggests something too stupid we just ignore him. He's a constrained random error. It's nonsense. The Rathki are just messing with us."
"Why on earth would an advanced race like theirs want to play cheap tricks on the likes of us?"
"They would rather we own this planet than one of their enemies. They certainly can't claim it without causing a furor." Jinki could imagine Mother's lips going thin, and her eyes going narrow and a bit scary. But Father was brave. "Terrans have good relations with everyone, Dabir, and if the Rathki say they're giving it to us, they can just about get away with it!"
"For plutonium?" said Father, with a derisive laugh. "They wouldn't go to that kind of trouble for plutonium."
"Something else then, something we don't know about," said Mother. "Come on, we all know this experiment is ridiculous to a degree that-"
"Conspiracy theorist," said Father, and then they had an argument.
Well it was obvious, really. In a dumb way. Jinki had never seen a rock, at least not within the time his meatsuit memory banks recorded. So he sat in the observatory and watched and waited, until it finally came, shining across the sky like a trail of wee after you'd drunk something really bad, like something radioactive maybe.
Jinki tried to think up the right sort of words.
"I wish that the falling star I'm wishing on will fall where I can gather it," he said, aloud, and winced at how stupid it sounded. "Come and be mine," he added, brightly, which sounded much nicer. "Come and be mine, falling star!"
"Can't be done," said Mr. Quest, coming out of nowhere. "Breaks the fundamental law of wishing on things. You can't wish on the thing for itself, you can't ask a genie to be yours. It's like saying 'I wish I had a wish'."
"But why?" said Jinki.
"Ah," said the Trickster, and capered on the spot for a moment, in his chrome suit that seemed to have a diamond pattern, just for a second, before the play of light and dark shifted. "And there it is, at long last. The first random error."
The small asteroid fell a few meters away, raising a fountain of dark dust. Jinki gasped. "You said-"
"Sometimes they have a bit of quartz in them, a bit of raw glass," said Mr. Quest. "That a baby made of light might hide in." Jinki noticed that the echo was gone from his voice. "There's many a reason a light baby mustn't walk through Time. You shouldn't, Jinki, because you're tied with the human timeline, you'd cause a thing, a great big knot of a thing like a briar-rose patch, called a paradox. A pa-ra-dox! As you Mother says – ah. You could never go live in the still eye of the storm of Time like your people do, not anymore, not anymore. Time shut its tiny door on you the moment your Mother took you to her bosom. Little Jinki, neither here nor there. You'd break down the Rathki mathematics like you were a great whale in space if you were to treat Old Time like your people do, like He didn't exist."
"Space whale," said Jinki, uncertain. "There are space whales?"
The Trickster grinned.
So some people in space suits went out and gathered up the asteroid, and put it in a sealed container. They laid it on a table, where it cooled rapidly. Father said space rocks weren't even hot when they landed, because they'd been in the vacuum so long, a bit of burning atmosphere didn't heat them up much. Father said it like a bit of burning atmosphere deserved everyone's contempt.
Only Jinki could touch it with his skin, said Mr. Quest, because if anyone else did, all the energy from violating the fundamental law of wishing on things would eat them. Mother muttered about it being nonsense, and who knew what was on that thing, and no child of hers was touching it, and many other things, and so they went and informed the Rathki Overlords, as Mother called them, and they came and took the asteroid away.
"It's me, isn't it, Mr. Quest?" said Jinki, a week later, playing with the flowers in the pots. "It's me that's in the asteroid, hiding in the quartz. I could feel me in there, I was old and sad. I was playing in the stars, long, long ago in the future, and then I came back in Time and hid in an asteroid because I wanted to give myself my own wish. That's nice of me, isn't it? So I didn't break the fundamental law of wishing on things. Because I granted my own wish." He felt like he should say 'ha!' or something like that, but it was too sad.
He wasn't allowed to go through Time yet, of course, he'd have to wait until he was older.
"And now you must remember to do it, Jinki," Mr. Quest said, with great gravity. "You must do it no matter what, because if you don't you'll break the stable Time loop and then who knows what will happen (what will happen, what will happen)." He laughed, and laughed, and laughed. "Ah, you will see when you are old and sad. They've got what they've always wanted, the Rathki with their mathematics. That's all they ever want (want want want). They've got themselves a paradox. Plutonium, pah!" Mr. Quest paused, delighted at having said pah! with such panache. "What do they care for stuff, Jinki? They're the Mathematicians of the Universe."
"What will they do to me in the asteroid, Mr. Quest?"
"Nothing worse than math, Jinki, nothing worse than math (math, math)."
"Will it hurt?" said Jinki.
"Jinki," said the Trickster, very gently. "You should know by now. Math always hurts."