Something bothers you about Cinnabar Island, something you can't put your finger on. Your friends rest exhausted in the pokéballs at your waist as you wander the hot, twisty streets, headed for the Pokémon Center. Not far away, perhaps, your water-bloated corpse rests at the bottom of Seafoam Caverns. That's not what's putting you on edge, though.
Maybe it's that this is where you died—that's kind of hard to overlook. But you had good memories here, too; it's more than just how your human life ended. There something off about this sunny little island, some kind of wrongness in the soil, maybe, something alien rolling on the waves. With everything that's happened in the last ten years, there's got to be some kind of curse on the place.
First there was the Mewtwo project, a perversion of nature that ended in flame and death as the slick research facility dominating the island's northwest corner went up in smoke. Then the riots, once the rest of the world found out what had really been going on, more fires, streets littered with abandoned cars and broken glass. And then, barely five years later, a quiet morning shattered by the volcano's explosive eruption, one no seismometer had seen coming.
You were there, actually, that very day, playing in the shallows and digging aimlessly in the sand. It was the first time you saw Absol do her appearing act, not even stepping from shadow like she normally does but suddenly just there, grabbing your arm in her teeth and dragging you into darkness even as the sand underneath you started to tremble. Not many people were lucky enough to have such a friend. Not many remain who can recount that fateful day, Gym Leader Blaine among them.
With a friend like Absol, it's hard not to be superstitious. Even if you weren't, you'd live with the knowledge that certain others are, and they take a personal interest in seeing karma's whims played out. But even if you weren't superstitious, you think you'd still be wary of spending a lot of time here on Cinnabar. The gym's back, reinstalled just above the volcano's fiery heart, and new resorts hog the shoreline. There's even a new lab. But so far, the people haven't followed; the streets are quiet, many of the storefronts up for lease, and the high-rises are draped in overly-exuberant banners advertising rooms still to be had.
You wander through the Pokémon Center's doors, lost in thought. You were a ball of nerves the first time you did this, standing paralyzed on the threshold with no idea what to do, but by now it's all routine. You hand over your pokéballs and idle by the desk, peering with interest at the Center computers. They're new, all shiny smooth plastic that won't last long under the tender care of eager young trainers. They appeared a few weeks ago, not long after you started training with Titan, and you haven't tried one out yet. Today, though, you need money, so you'll get to experience the wave of the future for yourself.
Once you get your pokémon back you choose a station and slide your pokédex into the slot. You don't even flinch when the machine razzes at you. You nearly had a heart attack the first time that happened, nearly blew your cover in the most dramatic way possible, but you're more experienced now. You lean closer to the screen, calm, unruffled, and read the error message. You're just Nicholas Garret, a no-name trainer who made a tiny mistake, of no interest to anyone.
But the message is not one you understand. "ERROR: Access Denied. This pokédex has been blacklisted. Please see the front desk for assistance." You'd expected it to tell you that you'd inserted the thing wrong. Annoyed, you press the "Pokédex Eject" button.
The machine buzzes again, and you almost jump in surprise. Another consultation with the screen gives you no new information. It's the same message staring back at you, hateful and red. You press the button again and grit your teeth as the machine lets out another loud, grating razz.
You're leave sweaty fingerprints on the keypad as you jam the button over and over again, the terminal's buzz droning in your ears and making your heart rate climb. Still the flashing error remains onscreen; still your pokédex stays locked in the depths of the machine. You growl and press down harder on the button, your eyes starting to blur with tears—
"Excuse me? Is something wrong?"
The nurse. The nurse. You spin around so fast she flinches back, staring at you with such shock that for a moment you fear you've lost control of your disguise. Your body's starting to shift in response to your emotions, straining away from the human mask you wear. You rub a hand over your face, wipe the tears out of your eyes and massage the muscles back into place. Then you take a deep, shuddering breath, try to drown the terror pounding inside you, and make an attempt at communication.
"Yes. The thing took—I do not know." You gesture helplessly at the computer, and the nurse makes a cautious approach, glancing over at you before peering down at the screen. You don't let yourself hope that she'll know what's going on, that she'll be able to get it back. That's not why you're leaning forward to watch, that's not why your breathing's picked up again.
"Oh," the nurse says, her forehead creasing in a frown. "It's these new models. They said something about a policy change, trying to crack down on pokédex theft, I think." She turns and gives you a reassuring smile. "I'm sure it's just a glitch or something. They're still getting the kinks worked out on these things. Somebody'll be over in a few minutes to look at it, and they'll be able to get it all sorted out for you. I'll call and make sure they have someone on the way."
You are not reassured. In fact, you feel like the nurse's words have frozen you over inside, ice water seeping into your guts. There is no glitch. This is not a mistake. They must have found your dead body, marked you down deceased in their eternal electronic records. This time, they are not content to let you walk the world of the living. They've taken your pokédex and now they're coming here to retrieve it, to retrieve you.
Heat flares in your chest as you realize: "They" aren't coming. Leonard Kerrigan is. This is his doing. He stole it. Now he's on his way here to confront you at last.
The nurse is still looking at you, the frown back on her face. "Are you all right?" she asks. "Would you like a glass of water?"
You turn away from her, shake your head. You rake your fingers through your hair, sweaty down at the roots, and try to focus. Try to concentrate. "I..." you start to say. "I am..." You are what? You are whom? You are—Nicholas Garret, you went to visit the Seafoam Islands, you slipped, you fell, you died. You are—trapped inside the machine, all that's left of you, the little card, the little card that tells you who you are. Who are you without it? Who are you now? Who are you? "I am..."
You're distantly aware of the nurse saying something else, backing away from you. You're making a scene. You can't help it. Your hands are shaking. Your heart is racing. Thoughts are pounding so hard inside your skull that your temples are throbbing. He took your pokédex. He has no right! It's all you have! It's you!
You make a guttural noise, a choked scream, and shove the nurse out of the way so you can get at the terminal again. You plunge your arm straight through the screen, shattering the mocking words, ignoring the glass in your arm, the shards of plastic and spitting wires. Your heart flutters before you remember to toughen your skin against the electricity, and you reach ever deeper, tearing up the machine's insides, searching.
Your fingers brush against something smooth and metallic, a box jutting inwards from the computer's plastic skin. You seize it and wrench it free, hauling it out of the wreckage. It's the device reader, your pokédex still caught inside, but it's safe now, it's free, it's in your hands. You cradle it against your chest, ignoring the burns and cuts dripping blood all down your arm. The terminal's ruined, its screen caved in and smoke pouring from the hole, shorting wires popping inside.
You turn around, grinning. It's okay. You have it again. It's safe. And your eyes meet the horrified stares of every trainer in the place, most now on their feet. A couple are releasing pokémon.
Your smile only gets wider. Something seems to have come loose in your head. You can't think. But you feel you ought to say something into the stunned silence, something apt and witty. You flip through your mental notebook, looking for the right phrase.
And there it is. Still grinning, you say, "Don't worry, I can pay for that." Then you lean forward over the pokédex and charge for the doors.
The child lies curled on the bed, sobbing and shaking in the dark. It grips the pokédex so tight it can feel the pulse beating in its fingertips, the machine's metal casing grown warm from the heat of its body. Duskull floats nearby, his single eye giving off a cold exit-sign glow. He's been there almost as long as the child can properly remember; some of its earliest memories of this life are nothing but damp and the cold and the light, the little red light, watching. The child cried a lot then, too.
It's not badly hurt, although it healed too quickly. Skin's closed over some of the glass, trapping it in the child's flesh. It'll need to be dug out later. More blood will have to flow, but for now, tears are enough. The child cries not because it is in pain, but for the sheer wrongness of it. They tried to take the pokédex. They tried to take its identity. How could they? What gives anyone the right to steal its soul?
But the dirty feeling of having someone's sweaty hands pawing at its spirit lies atop the sour ache of shame. It knows who's responsible for this. Leonard Kerrigan, with his cold sad eyes and tired face, he's the one who nearly brought the child low. It thought it had the upper hand; it thought the man was no real threat. And it was wrong, oh, so very wrong. It sobs and sobs until its whole body aches, like its every muscle has been wrung dry. It holds the pokédex as tightly as it can and vows to never let it go. No one will ever get the chance to steal it.
Soon Absol appears. The child doesn't actually see her come in, but it hears the whisper of footsteps on carpet, and then the pokémon leaps onto the bed. Absol settles within easy reach and permits the child to throw its arms around her neck, endures being dripped on, overlooks the fact that her ruff is getting gummed with snot.
Once the downpour slacks off to intermittent showers, she speaks. "What happened?"
The child tells her, stopping now and again for fresh upwellings of tears. Absol listens quietly, then remains so for some time afterwards, thinking. The child waits. Finally, Absol says, "That is unfortunate. You will need to be more careful if you don't want the human to catch you."
"I don't want to be more careful. I have to get him back, Absol. I can't let Leonard Kerrigan do this to me. I need to get War back and not have to worry about him anymore."
"Seeking revenge is a sure way of making a mistake."
"I don't care. I don't care." The child turns its back on Absol, curling into a ball around the pokédex again. It can feel her eyes on it, always the same calm, incurious stare. "He tried to steal from me, Absol. He already stole from me, and now he's not just taking one pokémon, he's trying to take all of them. I have to make him pay. He shouldn't be able to do that."
"It is not yet his time. We have discussed this before."
"That was different!" The child pounds a fist on the mattress. The other still holds the pokédex close. "I can't do it anymore, Absol. I don't want to wait. I'm not going to. If I ignore him, he's only going to get closer to the truth. It's more dangerous not to go after him now." It doesn't say it wants to see the look on the man's face when he realizes what's going on, realizes that he really has lost everything and there's nothing he can do about it. He will be powerless, and he will know it. And he will never again, never ever again, dare to try and stop the child.
Absol would disapprove. She already disapproves; the child can hear it in the long pause before she speaks. But she doesn't understand. An absol bears no grudges, names no enemies, holds none dear. The child knows this. Sometimes, it wishes it could be like Absol, eternally serene, eternally detached.
"You can't do anything until you've rested. That will give you time to think it over. I think you will come to see I'm right," she says.
The child doesn't care if she's right. She probably is—that's the irritating thing about Absol. It wants to answer the anger burning like acid in its chest, not sit around and listen. "It won't matter. He has to be punished, Absol. I can't let him do this to me."
Absol shifts over so her back is up against the child's, and the heat of her body soaks in through its shirt. "Rest," she says. "We can talk more later."
"You said we could talk about this later," the child says with every ounce of accusation it can muster.
"'Can' is not the same as 'will.'" Absol circles the child, and it reads suspicion in the narrowing of her eyes.
"Well I got Thunderstorm back, didn't I?" The child tries to thrust the pokéball under Absol's nose, but it can't keep hold of the slippery thing. Absol watches the ball bounce, red splotches marking where it lands. "Oops." The child wipes its hands on its shirt, not caring about the smears it leaves behind, and chases after the pokéball, jabbering all the while. "We have to talk about what to do next, Absol. There's only one left, and—"
"Did you eat the human?"
The child cradles the pokéball close to its chest, its mind racing. "Why?"
Absol doesn't say anything, but her look somehow takes in all of the child, the red-soaked clothing hanging heavy off its frame, the blood smeared across its face, gumming its hair into unruly upwards spikes. "Maybe a little," it mumbles. "But Absol—wait, no—Absol!"
She stalks away, but the child hurries around to cut her off, pausing only a moment to flame the bottom of its feet so they stop sticking to the floor. It gets in front of her and spreads its arms wide, blocking the doorway. "It wasn't much! And I waited until she was dead anyway, I'm not bad."
Absol is unmoved.
"I was hungry! We were following her forever," the child says, drawing the last word out as long as it can. "And I had to stop the wild pokémon from getting her too. They would have taken every bit they could. I was tired and hurt and I didn't even have much. When they find the body and they'll be able to tell who it was, don't worry."
They always do find the bodies. Absol insists that this is important. The child insists that it's a waste of perfectly good food, and terribly inconvenient besides. If she'd let the child hide them, it would take much longer for the humans to catch on, and it wouldn't have to keep getting new identities when the humans realize its current ones are dead.
But Absol won't budge. "Take whatever you wish from the dead; they can claim nothing as their own," she always says. "But the death itself has purpose, and attempting to disguise it is against the will of Fate. If the body is discovered, it is discovered; if not, it is not. A death may serve as a warning, a spot of comfort, an inspiration, and to prevent its message from reaching those for whom it was intended, even to delay it, is to act against Fate. You may take their lives for as long as you can, and if you are wise, you will ask for nothing more."
Absol believes in a lot of stupid rules.
Right now she's trying to leave again, pushing past the child in that smooth, imperious way she has. The child hurries after. It knows Absol isn't trying to get away, not really; if she wanted to go, she'd be gone, vanished into shadow and halfway across the region in seconds flat. Nothing much will hold a pokémon who can walk the dark ways.
Absol jumps up on the couch, settling in with paws hanging just over the edge. She looks down on the child with a bland expression, as though wondering why it's there. It stops and gives her a sour look right back. "Come on, Absol. You know we can't just wait around. The humans are figuring things out. We saw it on TV, remember?"
She'd better. She'd been lying on that very couch at the time. The child was sitting there, too, way over on the opposite end, huddled as small as it could make itself against the armrest. It could tell Absol was angry from the way her claws clutched in the cushion in front of her, from the hard line of tense muscles in her shoulder. But she wouldn't say anything, wouldn't even acknowledge the child at all; she just watched.
The TV was turned to some twenty-four-hour news channel showing endless repetitions of the security footage from the child's tantrum at the Center. Absol watched in statuesque calm, but the child shrank deeper into the cushions in cringing shame as it watched its mistake play over and over again. After all this time, it thought it had a better handle on its human act than that.
Meanwhile, commentators chattered over the silent tape. "Yeah, I see where they're coming from. I mean, the way he just stuck his whole arm in there like that, didn't even care about the glass and stuff, that's not natural, I mean—"
"But he's bleeding," another pointed out as the action moved on to the brawl between Nicholas Garret and the other trainers in the center. "I mean, have you ever heard of a zombie that bleeds?" Laughter.
Nicholas Garret escaped through the center's automatic doors, and the screen cut back to the newscasters. "What you saw there was footage of an incident that occurred earlier today at the Cinnabar Island Pokémon Center. A trainer identified as Nick Garret of Cerulean City had a breakdown and destroyed a computer terminal, then injured several other visitors who tried to prevent him from leaving. What makes this case interesting, though, is that Nick was found dead in Seafoam Caverns just last week."
"The whole thing started when the Center computer sequestered his pokédex because he'd been marked deceased in the League's records. In the past, trainers with suspicious pokédexes would be allowed to continue using the device without penalty for a short period of time, but a recent change in policy has made the sequestration immediate. Shortly after the incident, the League held an official press conference to discuss the motivation for the change and its relation to today's events."
The screen cut to a tape of a harassed-looking young man leaning on a podium emblazoned with the Indigo League seal. Michael Fitzwallace, according to the text at the bottom of the screen, an administrator of the Indigo League Trainer's Network. The child remembers being confused by that, wondering why Leonard Kerrigan didn't make an appearance. "Look," Michael Fitzwallace said, "we implemented the lockdown procedure in an attempt to curb the recent surge in pokédex theft by Team Rocket and other petty criminals. The grace period was long enough to allow thieves with a stolen 'dex to do serious damage to the previous holder's account before flipping it. That's all. And because the system isn't perfect, sometimes an innocent trainer is going to get flagged and have their pokédex taken away; the grace period was supposed to prevent that from happening by allowing time for spurious flags to be resolved."
"Whatever's up with Nick, it's a job for the police to figure out. It's got nothing to do with us. The League does not believe the dead are walking in Kanto, but we are not discriminating against undead trainers either. Questions?" He had a cocky grin for the camera, but it dissolved in the clamor that followed—obviously he'd expected his wit to go over better, but the reporters weren't going easy on him. The child watched in bitter amusement, amusement that twists its lips in a tooth-bearing smile even now, thinking back on it. He deserved that, the liar. "Nothing to do with us." The smug, smug liar.
But it's what the anchor said when the camera went back to the news desk that's been on the child's mind. "Nick's family has been unavailable for comment, but the funeral home where his memorial service was held reports that there was nothing odd about the proceedings or the body, and that it was definitely in the casket when it was put in the ground. Nick's gravesite appears intact, and plans to exhume the corpse for inspection are on hold until forensic evidence comes back that positively identifies the trainer on camera..."
That's where the child stopped listening, frozen in dismay at the mention of "forensic evidence." Alongside the cold prickling in its gut was the searing disapproval in Absol's gaze as she finally turned to look at it. It couldn't meet her eyes, head full of scenes from its favorite crime dramas: white-coated lab techs bustling about, mixing mysterious fluid, reading glowing lines that say who it really is, the person hiding in the blood that spilled from Nicholas Garret's body. It had been so angry it couldn't think, that it hadn't been careful. How much blood would they find? Enough, it thought. How much did they even need? Only the tiniest drop...
The child looks down at itself, turning Thunderstorm's smeary pokéball around in its fingers. "They're trying to find me, Absol. With science. I can't just sit around and wait for that to happen."
"It was rash action that got you into this situation. It will not get you out of it."
"They took my pokédex, Absol. What was I supposed to do? I couldn't let them have it. What would happen then?"
"You lost your temper."
"I know. I'm sorry. But what was I supposed to do? What would you do if—I mean, I tried. I tried to be calm. But I can't be calm like you, Absol." It sets Thunder's pokéball aside and clenches its fists. "I know I screwed up. I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting anything unusual, and I panicked." It clenches its hands tighter, then changes its mind and buries them in its matted hair instead. Absol just watches. "What am I going to do now? What if they get my blood and figure out who I really am? What if they figure everything out, Absol? What am I going to do?"
"What do you think you should do?"
It doesn't know. But it knows what it wants to do.
"It's Leonard Kerrigan," the child says. "He's behind this. Whatever this new rule is, it's his fault somehow. It isn't safe to use the pokédex anymore, not like I used to. If they find out who I am, they might figure everything else out, too. What would I do then? If they find me and they stop me, then she'll be all alone. I have to save her, Absol. You know I do." It stops for a moment, mouth working on nothing as the words catch in its throat. It grits its teeth again and forces the tears back, determined not to be pathetic.
Absol says nothing, but after a few seconds she gives the faintest of nods, inviting the child to continue. It works its mouth until it finally unsticks the words from its throat. "So I have to get him. I have to stop Leonard Kerrigan, Absol. I know you don't like it. But it's the only way. I have to get War back from him before he figures everything out."
Absol's eyes narrow the merest fraction; her claws dig into the cushions. The child keeps going, spilling out the words as fast as it can, getting it over with, like plunging into an ice-cold lake. "So I'm going to go and get War back from him and make sure he can't do anything to stop me. And once I have War, that will be it, won't it? I can go and find her. It will all be over and I'll find her and everything will be okay."
"You are panicking," Absol says. "You are losing your temper. Haven't you already done enough damage? Waiting is the safest thing you can do."
"I can't wait forever, Absol! And Mew can't, either. It's been years. What if it's already too late? What if we wait and wait and in the meantime, they, they—do something to her? They're hurting her, Absol. You know, when I see her—she's scared. She's hurting. We can't just leave her there."
"It will do no good to rush in when the time is not right. You will only make things worse."
"But it's fate that we meet again anyway. Why does it matter if I speed it up some? Can you even prove that this isn't how things are supposed to go? Maybe I'm fated to get angry and go off and fight Leonard Kerrigan. Or maybe I was supposed to get War back the first time instead of messing up." They're old arguments, bickered on and off over the months and years prior. The child drags them out one more time, lines them all up for Absol to consider. If she doesn't agree, then she doesn't agree. It'll just have to do it anyway. The thought of going against her puts a cold edge of unease alongside the flush of its anger.
"It's happening faster and faster now anyway. It was years before you found Rats, wasn't it? And then more for War, the first time. But it was only a couple for Titan, and then a few months for Thunder. Something's going to happen soon. It's got to. Obviously fate is speeding up. I'm supposed to get War back soon. I need to be ready."
"This is not Fate," Absol says icily. "This is vengeance. And those who practice vengeance will only see it visited on themselves. I cannot stop you if this is what you wish to do. But neither will I be able to save you when Fate turns back on you for it. It is not my place to intervene."
"I know it's not. But maybe it's mine. Isn't that what humans do? Isn't that what you told me?" The child throws up its hands and tries to believe its own arguments. This isn't about vengeance. It isn't. It's just what needs to be done.
"You are not human."
"I know! But I'm not a pokémon, either. So maybe I get to choose."
Absol cants her head to the side, just slightly, and for a moment the child could swear she's smiling at it. When she speaks again, her tone isn't quite as acid as before. "Perhaps. But I would choose wisely. I have told you of the danger. You could be throwing everything you have away. But it is not my place to intervene." She jumps down from the couch and stands stretching a moment before turning back to the child. "No decision as important as this is properly made in haste. If you take a while to rest, if you think it over, you will be much more likely to make the right choice."
The child scowls after her as she pads away, off towards the kitchen. The right choice. Of course she just means what she would choose. It turns on the TV and tries to concentrate on what's going on on-screen, some rerun cartoon of a couple nidoran bashing each other with mallets. The noise and flashing colors wash over the child, but they can't distract it from the dark churning of its mind.
Of course Absol doesn't understand. The child could swear that icewater runs in her veins instead of blood. She wouldn't hurry if there was a tidal wave collapsing down on top of her; she wouldn't show a hint of anger if her entire family was murdered before her eyes. She doesn't understand how hard it is for the child, her and her perfect "Fate" and her detachment and her always being right. She doesn't understand why it has to do this.
It's not just because Leonard Kerrigan is making its life difficult. That's annoying, but nothing more. There's humiliation there, yes, the memories of how it failed, and that's the only reason the human troubles it at all. But it's more than that, now, so much more. He went and put his dirty hands all over the child's soul. He tried to take the pokédex, the only thing it really has left. And the child can't let someone do that to it. Not now, not ever. It can feel bile rising in its throat just thinking of it. Not now, not ever, never. It doesn't matter what Absol says. She doesn't understand.
She's right about one thing, though. The child needs to think this over. And it is thinking it over, very, very carefully. It's considering everything it knows about Matt Kerrigan, every piece of information it's gathered over the years, and what it's going to do with them. It won't make the same mistakes it did last time. It's prepared, this time, to be Matt Kerrigan properly. Matt Kerrigan, the lost son. Matt Kerrigan, the suicide case.