Chapter 1

In the conversation they don't have, the child would apologize for letting him die. "Sorry I can't help you, but this is how it has to happen," it would say. "This is how it's supposed to be. Don't worry, this isn't the end. You can still be useful, even if you're dead. I'll take your name and I'll take your face and I'll take your pokémon (the one that is mine, the one that was stolen from me), and I'll go and make things right. That's what I'm doing. So you're helping me, anyway. It's not all bad."

It can't say anything like that, of course. It can't say anything at all. Absol is very strict about interfering with Fate's victims. She's beside you now, breath misting white in the chill air of the cavern, watching the human. That's what she does: watches. She watches to be sure that Fate plays out the way it's supposed to, but she doesn't interfere.

Usually the child doesn't mind much. The dying people are no one it knows or foggy memories at best. It has nothing to say to them. But this one it thinks it recalls. "I know you," it might say. "You used to make little origami sculptures for your desk, didn't you? I always liked those, especially the pokémon ones. They were pretty." He must have been an intern, then? Not someone who was around for very long. He's uncommonly old to still be training, but perhaps he decided to take a break after Cinnabar. Maybe he decided science wasn't for him.

Because the child has other memories, too, memories from a different life, and they whisper, "I know you. I remember you. I remember your face as you wrote the numbers down and lined the needles up. I remember your fear, human, and your shame, but I remember too that it did not stay your hand."

There wouldn't be time to say all that anyway, not even most of it. In movies it seems like there's always time for last words, but here it's all over quickly: the human slips from the edge of the path, down here where everything is glitter-slick from the spray of the underground river. He falls funny on one arm and it breaks, and he doesn't even cry out as it snaps, just grabs for an icy rock with the other.

"You don't have to be scared," the child imagines itself telling him as he hangs there for a terrifying second, still thinking he might pull himself back up. "I died once. It wasn't so bad."

His fingers find no purchase on the ice, and the incline keeps him sliding. His hand goes next to the pokéballs on his belt, but it's too late, too late. The rushing river grabs at his legs, pulls him down and under, and in no time at all he's gone.

Absol goes forward, thick claws splayed wide to steady herself on the ice. She paces at the edge of the river. The child imagines the human being swept along by the rushing current, slammed against submerged boulders and carried over hidden waterfalls. The river will take him to the very depths of the cave, where stories say Articuno's nest resides, delicate spires of ice and cast-off feathers among the rocks. The human will never see it, though. He'll be much too dead.

Absol stops her pacing, turns back to the child and nods. It scrambles out from behind the boulder and joins her at the water's edge, peering into the dark, rushing flow. Its shadow stretches out over the water, rippled and frayed by the turbulent surface. There are lights behind it, illuminating the slushy path where it's safe for trainers to walk. Where the child's going, there will be no light at all, and only the bravest humans tread.

The child sits perched on the edge a moment longer, readying scale and gill and webbing. "I'll meet you back at the house," says Absol, and it nods, not really paying attention. Absol probably likes it down here, where it's deathly cold and the shadows lie close at hand. She might stay a while, vacationing, but the child still has work to do. It hesitates a moment, watching how the water froths around the jag of a half-submerged rock, then throws itself in.

Even prepared for the shock, even insulated against the water's bite, the child still feels the cold like a hammer blow. Its gasp pulls in a mouthful of water, but it just goes sliding back out over the child's gills like a deep and icy breath. The child lets the current carry it along, clicking and squeaking to conjure a radar map of the riverbed. It makes a game of dodging rocks at the last possible moment, twisting away with a kick of webbed feet. Then the riverbed drops away and it's falling, flailing at air and spray with a whoop of delight. It hits a couple rocks on the way down, jarred but not broken, its scales armor against cutting edges, and plunges back into the river with a thundering splash, drifting down until the current grabs it again and pulls it along.

Down and down, around tight bends and over surging rapids, down more falls into the heart of the caverns. The child rolls and tumbles along until the current slows and another drop brings it to the final basin, where the river stops and water seeps out through hidden cracks and fissures. The child strokes downwards in the pitch dark, ignoring translucent swimming things, ghostly in its echo-sense, and a few pokémon, wary, staying out of its way. There at the bottom it finds the corpse.

The child grabs the human and kicks back to the surface, eyes opening to stare at nothing in the deep-dark. There's a shelf of rock up against one wall, it remembers, and it kicks its way over blind until it bumps up against the lip of rock.

There's barely enough room for it to perch out of the water, and it hunches on the edge like a gargoyle, snorting the last of the water out of its nose as its gills close up. The corpse lolls half out of the water, broken arm tangled in the straps of its backpack. The child ignores the bag for now, and the clothes, and even the pokéballs, the real prize. Greedy with anticipation, it fishes the trainer's pokédex out of his pocket, working by feel. It flips the machine open and squints into sudden LED brilliance.

The child ignores cold and cramping muscles as it stares at the screen, scrolling through menus, flipping through page on page of data. It learns as much about the trainer's life as it can from the pokédex's records, then snaps the device shut again and in the darkness changes. The child becomes someone else and, crouching there in another's skin, it tells itself the story of who it is now:

You are Nicholas Garrett. Around eight years ago you were interning at the lab on Cinnabar Island—maybe. Something to do with the lab, or you wouldn't be here now.

Four years ago you began your journey. You're a slow trainer, but a thorough one: four years, five badges. You have a charizard, your starter, nidoqueen, primeape, rhydon, and several others of little consequence.

Today you came to the Seafoam Islands. Why, you don't know—looking for a seel, maybe, or just out for an adventure, maybe seeking the legendary Articuno. Whatever you were seeking will have to go unfound.

Because you died down here, Nicholas Garrett, in the darkness and the deep. You were twenty-six years old.

What do you do now?