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Chapter 10

Polarization

Hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, the Yggdrassil smashed into the rust-colored powder of the Martian desert. Steam jetted out of the exhaust port of the wrecked craft and into the air, crystallizing instantly and making weird frost-webs on the ground as is fell. Although the few habitat-domes that dotted the surface of Mars retained Terran conditions within, the God of War's patron planet was colder on mild days than the Arctic regions of Earth.

Steel, nearly rent asunder by the twin forces of the arctic cold from without and the reentry inferno from within, twisted and screamed in the atmosphere as it contracted in on itself. Had any observer, human or otherwise, taken stock of the once-spherical Yggdrassil, they would have immediately equated its appearance with that of a crush human skull.

From within the twisted, tortured ship, a figure emerged. The ebony armor that encased him had once shined with a deadly luster, and the two tall crests that ran down the sides of his helmet had once gleamed with the hue of dark gold. Now, caked with ash and soot, the figure appeared as a demon of hell, crawling from its infernal birthplace.

A pair of wings sprouted from his back--shaped like a bat's. They were broken and beaten in innumerable places, useless for gliding by now. Noticing this, the figure cursed violently and spat a command in a voice that had once been almost human.

"Gospel--detach!"

With a clunk and a whirr, the wings folded inwards and the upper half of the bulky armor which had weighed on the figure's shoulders crashed to the ground. After a few seconds, the distinctive growl of a mechanized wolf emanated from within the depths of the shapeless hulk of steel.

With a visibly painful effort, Gospel metamorphosed back into his primary configuration. The dim light of the distant sun reflected only scant rays of light off of the mechanized wolf's black and violet armor. Death gleamed in Gospel's feral eyes: primal and angry.

Forte collapsed to his knees and gasped for breath. The virus had taken more out of than he had first accounted for. His internal fusion reactor relied on oxygen for fuel, and the amount in the Martian atmosphere was negligible. Still, his emergency backup systems should have been able to compensate.

Except for the damn virus.

Feeling as weak as any human--his lip curled at the involuntary comparison with the hated organic slime--Forte reached blindly for Gospel's firm shoulder. Taking a deep breath, Forte was dismayed to find that his carbon dioxide-to-oxygen fission unit had been affected by the virus, and that breathing was now counterproductive to survival.

Throwing a desperate glance at the forzen-burning Yggdrassil, Forte snarled. It was useless as an escape vehicle. He would die in this forsaken place--away from everything he had known and taken comfort in. In his last few minutes, Forte would have been glad for the company of even one of those idiotic Robot Masters.

Damn him, Forte railed silently. How? How can he keep defeating me? I'm a repliroid! How can this be?

And as if Forte's thoughts of the hated blue hunter had been a summoning, a sleek, crimson ship touched down in the Martian soil, its repuslor-engines spewing rust-colored dust hundreds of feet into the air.

From here, the sun was only half its size as visible from Earth, and through the dusty haze, its dim light cast a bloody tinge across Forte's agonized features. All the sable-armored repliroid wished to do was lie back and die.

As his will to live drained from him, Forte felt an unpleasant tingling that originated at the base of his spine. The virus was attacking again.

Although his sensors told him he was still on Mars, Forte suddenly saw the whole scene of his "father's" murder played out over and over again before his helpless eyes. Rage throbbed throughout Forte's being, coursing through his system in angry pulses of electricity.

"Forte! Hilf mir, mein Sohn!" Dr. Wily's final words haunted Forte.

Rage gave him the power to somehow stand in the sub-arctic hell against the howling winds that battered him with crimson dirt. Madness drove him to shift his left hand into a buster, and his teeth bared in a bestial growl.

The hatch of the scarlet ship opened, and the hated enemy, the symbol of all that Forte held in contempt and hatred, emerged.

Rockman stood across from the demonic figure, rage playing across his battered features.

His left fist crackled and metamorphosed into the egg-shaped buster that had been the instrument of Forte's defeat time after humiliating time. Rockman's expression became a mirror of Forte's, and the blue android stepped down from the hatch.

Forte took a quivering step back. Even in his madness, he knew that, somehow, Rockman had changed. This was not the naive android whom Forte had deceived years ago at their first meeting. This was not the same android whom Forte had battled with the power of the Dark Energy.

Rockman had changed . . .

. . . and the sound of the blue-armored android's voice proved it.

"You know don't you?" Rockman growled hoarsely. "You knew from the start. Blues . . . Accordatura . . . you had it planned! You did this to me!"

Forte could not make himself fire, despite the screaming urge to destroy his enemy. "He managed an insolent grin. "I'm nothing if not thorough."

Rockman was upon Forte so fast that the black-armored repliroid could do little more than whimper. His systems, damn them, weren't responding quickly enough, and the virus had sapped his strength and will to fight.

Gospel tried valiantly to come to his master's aid. With a howl, he leaped at Rockman's throat, only to be toppled and knocked on his back. A snarling red form rolled over and over with Gospel, its teeth locked on the robot-wolf's throat.

It had once been said in Forte's presence that every dog is only two meals away from being a wolf, and Rush's vicious growl proved that the crimson cyborg-dog was no exception.

Rockman held his hands around Forte's throat and squeezed, hoping to break his opponent's head from its neck-module. "You bastard," he snarled. "You gave it to me! I don't know how, but you did!"

Forte's eyes widened as chilling comprehension washed over him.

No.

"You gave me the virus!" Rockman spat savagely, his eyes alight with madness. "You made me an Irregular!"

Irregular. Maverick. Murderer.

This was no longer Rockman that Forte faced--it was something far, far more dangerous.

And Forte knew fear.