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"I think it was probably Vajurila who said it best back before the liberation: 'If all else fails, fry the bastards. Irregulars might be tough, but run enough electricity through even Sigma himself, and he'll light up like a Christmas Tree.' Wise words, spoken by a wise repliroid. So fear not, Dr. Doppler; even if I have to waste all my energy blasting those Hunters for you, it'll be done. Nobody likes being electrocuted."

--Electro Namazarus (Volt Catfish), directly following the revolt of Doppler Town

Chapter 9

Wax Wings

It had been difficult, and hard to reconcile at first.

James Walken heaved a nervous sigh, his shattered nerves frayed. The leader of the HSL had gambled with his life; and it had very nearly cost him. If the rest of the League ever found out about this, he would be lynched in a second.

James Walken had special ordered the robot to be built in secret by the remnants of the New Frankish Empire quite some time ago. It was supposed to be illegal, but the nations that had been France, Italy and Spain were still poor from reparations, even after all these years. James Walken was, among other things, rich. No sensible roboticist would turn down millions of dollars, even if it were for a job that was highly illegal.

Especially, Walken knew, if the man were starving.

And so James Walken had contracted Dr. Benoit Fitzgerald to build a robotic duplicate of the HSL's founder.

Of course, it wasn't a robot in the truest sense--it was entirely remote-control operated. That was how james Walken excused the sin to himself. Of course, robots were evil, and using a robot to bring about the downfall of robots was just an example of how evil always planted the seed of its own defeat, even as its black tree grew.

If ever questioned, that was how James Walken would answer.

In truth, he was still--in his heart--a paranoiac who had never felt safe after watching the brutal death of his father decades ago. After Dr. Wily's frequent outbursts, Walken had abandoned Skull Castle in secret, leaving behind a remote-controlled robotic duplicate of himself.

A duplicate which had cost him over ten million dollars.

A duplicate for which the brilliant French roboticist had later been put to death by the HSL for manufacturing.

A duplicate which had just been utterly destroyed by some thing that wore the guise of Juan Iago. James Walken's fury rose at the gall of it. That Dr. Wily should try to assassinate him! He, James Walken, was far more fit to live than the antichrist who ruled Skull Castle!

And what the hell had that thing been?

Walken shivered uncontrollably. Were it not for his cautious nature, that might have been him that suffered a fatal plasma wound. Walken tried not to imagine how it would feel to be disemboweled by a blast so powerful that his viscera would be vaporized instantly upon contact.

Now was the time to act.

He had already spoken to Juan since the incident, and the pair had decided to storm Skull Castle. Even now, the mass of the Human Supremacy League would be gathering just out of range of Skull Castle's radar-detection system. Within a week--if that--Wily and his demon-robots would be dead along with Rockman.

Even in his state of semi-shock, James Walken was arrogant enough to let a nasty smile form on his now-pasty features. Yes, soon Wily and all other obstructions to Walken's supremacy would be dead.

And James Walken would rule the world.

* * * * *

Monique narrowed her eyes and inspected herself in the mirror.

It was as if the armor had been custom-tailored for her. Taking a few experimental steps, she saw that the light blue body glove seemed to move with her skin, so that no folds or creases reflected any light. As for the titanium-mesh armor underneath the body glove, it was weighty without being heavy enough to slow Monique down in a potentially fatal situation.

"Well?"

Monique turned towards Juan Iago, who--at the moment--was the picture of impatience.

"Does it work?" Juan asked.

"Seems to," the assassin replied noncommittally. "But this," she indicated the egg-shaped sheath which covered her hand and the laser blaster she held in it, "will take some getting used to."

"Get used to it quickly then," the second-in-command for the HSL snorted. "You've got less than an hour before your reign of terror begins, 'Rockman.'"

Monique allowed herself a sardonic grin. "Whose idea was this, anyway?"

Juan lowered his voice and shifted nervous eyes back and forth, as if trying to avoid any unwanted attention. "Actually, I think it was Dr. Wily's idea, but our grand exalted leader has convinced himself that it was his idea to begin with."

The assassin snorted. "Typical. All you religious fanatics are the same."

Juan straightened with a hurt and angry look in his eye. "Fanatics? Please remember whom your addressing, Ms. Jansen. I am your employer, and second-in-command of the largest operative army in the world at this time."

"And I," Monique replied, "am capable of gutting you from this distance without so much as a blink of my eye, so don't get any ideas into that self-righteous head of yours. Besides," she added, "religious fanatics always have the best pay."

"I think it's time you got going," Juan snapped. "Take this," he handed her a teleporter, "and go to New Denver. Kill any humans you find there." Observing no reaction from Monique, he continued. "After that, you go to Croatia. Same drill."

"I can remember my orders after the first dozen reminders," Monique answered. Then, looking suspiciously at the teleporter, "Are you sure this thing's safe? I know you're paying me a lot, but--"

"Perfectly safe," Juan assured her. "Believe me, there's nothing that could go wrong."

Monique rolled her eyes before she disappeared in a flash of white light. "Oh, sure."

Juan stood still, breathing in the ionized air for a few moments. Of course, the teleporter was just as likely to kill her as to work, but neither way particularly mattered to the Brazilian guerrilla. After the attempt on Walken's life, Juan understood that it was paramount to launch as many attacks against Rockman as possible so that the main force of the HSL could storm Skull Castle while Rockman was busy with diversions.

And besides, he reflected, framing Rockman for the death of hundreds of innocents would be a fitting irony.

Juan grinned wolfishly and then turned to his work. Explosives were his specialty, and there would be great need for them at the siege of Skull Castle.

* * * * *

"Damn," Rock muttered. "That hurts."

"Quit complaining, and watch your mouth," Bess ordered with matronly authority as she helped Roll graft replacement skin to Rock's body. "I think it was silly of you to fight a robot that could do this to you anyway."

Rock stifled a grin, despite his grim turn of mind. Snap's ten-year-old daughter had taken her job as honorary nurse very seriously. Roll, after her initial reaction of amusement, could see no harm in letting the child help place strips of adhesive skin on Rock's charred body. After all, his frame had long since lost most of its heat, so there was no way the child could burn herself.

"So," Roll said, "you look like you're doing pretty well." She managed a smile as she added, "At least, except for your skin."

"Yeah," Rock answered curtly.

"Cheer up," Bess said, "Dr. Light thinks he might have found a way to neutr . . . neu . . . neuter the virus!"

Rock had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. "I think you mean neutralize," he said, "But the news is appreciated." Casting a look at Roll, he suggested, "Why don't you go and see how your dad is doing?"

"'Kay," bubbled Bess, and she bounced out of the room.

After a few moments of silence, Rock asked, "Is it true? Has Dr. Light . . ."

Roll made a gesture halfway between a shrug and a nod. "He said that to Bess, but I'm really not sure if he was just trying to be optimistic or not. He's been locked up all this morning trying to devise an anti-virus that will help, but the only product I've observed so far is lots of muted swearing from his room."

"So . . ." Rock flexed his right arm, testing the feel of his new syntheflesh. "Only one more General to defeat." He made a fist. "I wonder what Wily has done to Icarus."

Roll didn't answer; it was a rhetorical question, as she well knew.

Clearing her throat, she asked, "So, did you get anything from--"

"Fireman?" Rock answered, "Yes. I'll just recharge while you install the chip." He proffered the data chip between his index and middle fingers.

Roll accepted the chip and removed a small, hand-held computer module from her pocket. Rock looked on, semi-interested, as she inserted the chip into the top of the small device. His sibling stared critically at the small screen for a moment before nodding curtly and removing the chip.

Rock couldn't help himself. "What is that?"

"It's a chip-analyzer," Roll answered as she turned towards her work table. "I thought that maybe if I modified my little computer to tell me how compatible a chip's infonet structure is with your brain, then it'd save me time on adjustments."

"Good idea," Rock said admiringly. "So what'd it tell you?"

"Well, the Firestorm weapon should basically give you the ability to shoot a sphere of fire about the size of your head. You won't get a wall of flame, I'm afraid, but you should be temporarily shielded from any attacks."

"How's that?"

Roll gave her brother a look of mock-annoyance. "I thought you were going to recharge."

"Yeah, I guess so." Rock lay back and closed his eyes. "Well, let me know when you're done. I have a feeling that this next job is going to be pure hell . . . as if the last one wasn't."

"Huh." Roll grunted noncommittally. "Well, get some rest, hero. I have some work to do on you, and there's not much time left."

Rock's momentary light mood evaporated as he pondered the truth of Roll's statement. He was beginning to feel the effects of the virus again; it was a constant reminder of his newly inflicted mortality.

"Sweet dreams," Roll said.

As Rock switched into recharge mode, he wondered whether she had been serious or joking.

* * * * *

Insane giggling bounced off the plated walls of the double-shielded chamber. The echoes found one another and twisted together to create an effect that was at once grimly comical and unsettling. Added to the initial giggling came peals of laughter, each tinged with irrationality and craziness more than the last. The twisted overtones of the laughter were enough to drive a mortal to insanity just by listening to them.

And realizing that made the androbot laugh even harder. Dr. Light would have been amazed to see one of his creations laughing with such human gusto. However, he would have quickly tired of the discovery in favor of finding a way to escape the manic giggling.

"Bring in the next one!" Elecman managed to gasp between chuckles.

The black-armored androbot flexed crimson-gloved hands and savored the moment of anticipation. His "throne room" as he had dubbed it, perched atop the massive World Energy Plant, and as a result, all of his visitors or victims were made to climb a long ladder to reach him. Their entrance to his chamber was more often than not terribly undignified.

This, of course, was of the utmost amusement to the renegade Robot Master.

After a moment, robotic hands roughly shoved a cowering human up through the floor entrance to Elecman's throne room. The pitiful man looked to be in his late thirties, and was covered with grime and mud. Perhaps this was one of the captured escapees, Elecman mused.

In broken Croation, Elecman spoke. "What is your name, human?"

"My-my name?" The man seemed taken aback to be addressed in his own language.

Elecman fell on his back in gales of laughter. "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" he gasped. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the laughter stopped, and Elecman was on his feet, lightning fast. Within half a breath, he was standing directly before the terrified man, holding a crackling ball of energy in his hands.

"Your name, human! Now!" All mirth had fled from his voice.

"Y-yuri," the man stuttered.

"Heh." Elecman rolled the name around in his mind. "Yuri. Heh heh. Ha ha ha!"

Unsure what to think of this insane robot who laughed at everthing, Yuri took a nervous half-step backwards.

"Don't move!" Elecman snarled, his angry voice echoing across the room.

Yuri stopped dead in his tracks.

Casually, Elecman walked towards his prey. "Do you know what they used to call me?" he asked. Receiving no answer from the man, he continued. "My name used to be Icarus. Now, if you can tell me who Icarus was, and why I got that name, I'll give you a sporting chance at life. How does that sound, human?"

Yuri nodded miserably. "Well. That sounds well, master."

"Oh!" Elecman clapped his hands together in glee. "Master, is it? I like that. Ha ha ha! Yes, indeed. I like that very much, human. Did you know that you are the first out of all those--" he gestured to a pile of corpses, barely recognizable for their burned states, "--to call me Master?"

"Greek?"

Elecman cast a derisive look upon the man. "What's this drivel you're spouting, worm?"

"G-greek, Master? Icarus is a Greek name, isn't it?" Yuri shook with near-hysterical fear.

There was a moment of deadly silence, in which the Croatian swore he could hear his heartbeats echoing off of the walls. Then Elecman burst out in another peal of laughter.

"Yes! Yes, absolutely! Oh, you're good, Yuri. Now, Yuri--" the androbot paused momentarily. "I may call you Yuri, mayen't I?" Not waiting for a response, he continued. "Now, Yuri . . . tell me who Icarus was."

"I-Icarus," Yuri shook. "Ah, he made wings of feathers and wax and flew away from prison?"

"And he lived to tell the tale?"

"Y-yes, Master." Yuri quivered.

Elecman nodded. "Very good. Very good, Yuri." He took a few steps closer. "But I was speaking of Icarus, not Daedelus."

Yuri's blood ran cold.

"Nice try," Elecman chuckled, and released millions of volts and amperes' worth of electricity into the hapless man. Keeping a firm grip on the body, Elecman began to giggle as it jiggled around with the force of all the energy coursing through it. Soon, the body began to smoke, and the head burst into flames.

Unable to control his mirth any longer, Elecman collapsed to the floor in helpless gales of laughter. "Woo hoo hoo! Heh. Did you see him dance?! Ha! You should have seen the look on his face!" He prattled to nobody for a few more seconds before making several mad leaps into the air and calling down the shaft.

"Send in the next one!"

* * * * *

"A decoy." Dr. Wily clenched his fists until his nails bit red crescents into his oil-grimed palms. "That idiot? How could he have the foresight?"

Docman shifted uncomfortably. "I do not know. I only tell you what I--"

"I believe you," Wily snapped, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Well, we'd better get ready."

"Ready?" Docman, still in his holographic cloak of Juan Iago, displayed a confused expression, in hopes that Dr. Wily would notice and congratulate him once again on a job well done.

The German roboticist didn't even notice. With a frown, he answered, "Yes, get ready. Prepare. You should understand that." Without giving his creation time to respond to the jibe, Wily explained. "I'm sure now that fool Walken will try to attack me. And the way Rock--" he spat the name with such fury-laden hate that Docman took an involuntary step backwards, "--is on the verge of toppling my last General."

"A siege, then?" Docman dropped his holographic cloak and looked in earnest at his god-creator.

Wily, however, made no answer. He stared at something unseen in the corner before finally shivering, despite the heat in the nether chambers of Skull Castle. With snake-quick movements, Dr. Wily gripped a concealed laser pistol and blasted away a nearby section of the wall.

Panic in his eyes, he turned to Docman. "Do something!" the mad scientist pleaded.

Docman adjusted his photoreceptor intake to include all wavelengths of light, and stared dutifully at the place where Dr. Wily had loosed a laser blast. Nothing appeared to him but the infrared glow of the still-hot wall fragments on the ground.

"You're against me too!" Dr. Wily screamed, leveling the pistol at Docman's head.

Docman dropped to the floor at Wily's feet and groveled. "No, Master. Please, don't kill--"

But it was already over. Wily looked incredulously down at Docman for several long moments. After a near eternity of silence, Docman's aural receptors picked up the barely audible whisper of his creator. "What have I done?"

In a daze, Dr. Wily walked out of the room. His right arm, hanging slack at his side, still gripped the laser pistol. Frightened, but unwilling to leave his master, Docman followed. Hoping to avoid another outburst, he stayed in the shadows as he followed, using his holographic abilities to blend more easily.

Several minutes passed while Docman stealthily pursued his "father" through the nightmarish honeycomb-maze of Skull Castle's lower levels. And when he finally deemed it safe to approach Wily more closely, the German scientist vanished with the telltale line of white fire from a teleporter.

"Damn!" Docman swore violently and turned back. There was no telling where Dr. Wily had gone now. He was beginning to wonder of Dr. Wily's already crippled sanity would hold out long enough command the siege, or if he, Docman, would need to take over.

Had the androbot had tear ducts, he would have wept.

* * * * *

Dr. Wily appeared in the seat of his giant mech. here, in his ultimate creation, was the only place he felt safe now. Despite the fact that his Skull Castle was one of the best fortresses in the world, and that perched in the Andes, it was incredibly defensible, it wasn't enough. Despite the fact that he was guarded by his miraculous cyclops robot and Docman, and even that half-finished robot in the sewer system, and that he had over a thousand robot soldiers in the castle, it wasn't enough.

Dr. Wily was the most powerful man in the world at the moment. With over nine different Skull Castles spread out across the globe, each in ultra-secret locations and virtually impossible to find, even for those who knew where to look, he controlled the best-defended military installations on the planet.

But it wasn't enough.

Only here, in the glass bubble-encased cockpit of his massive war mech, floating lazily a few meters above the ground, did Dr. Wily feel even the slightest bit secure. Here, the visions did not come to him. Here, he was in charge of the world.

Suddenly feeling very foolish, Dr. Wily looked at himself, dressed in a dirty lab coat and streaked all over with dirt, grease, oil, sweat and tears. Here he was, cowering like a little child in his fortress, when he should be celebrating!

After all, Rock would be dead within a day and a half, and James Walken would be nothing but an insect throwing himself impotently against the impregnable walls of Skull Castle. With the world's hero gone and the only man who might challenge him close enough to kill at his leisure, Dr. Wily would have nothing to stand in his way.

He began to chuckle.

Then he began to laugh.

And when he realized that he would finally be able to banish the visions, he broke into full scale guffaws.

Within a glass bubble in the lowest depths of Skull Castle, a vision of madness giggled to himself.

And outside, the rain abated.

* * * * *

When Rock awoke, his internal chronometer warned him that he had only thirty seven hours and 16 minutes left in life before the virus ended everything. The sensors in his back had slightly overloaded, and the surplus energy returned to his main CPU as pain signals that were singly minute, but collectively irritating.

"Wonderful," the android snapped as he sat up. "I've got 37 hours to live, and I just woke up with a backache." He glared at anything and everything in the lab room that would have his anger before standing and inspecting himself.

Pulling up the weapons submenu in his brain, he noticed that there were two new additions. Besides his plasma buster, the rolling cutter, hyper bombs and ice slasher, there were now firestorm and magnet beam.

"Magnet beam?" he mused aloud.

"It's not finished yet," Dr. Light answered from the back of the room. Rock turned so he could see his creator-father. The white-bearded man shook his head. "We've got most of it transferred into your system, but there's a crucial piece that we don't have yet."

"What does it do?" Rock asked.

"It should use a strong magnetic field to pull trace amounts of iron out of anything nearby and create a small levitating platform," Dr. Light answered. "We've got everything working, but the only electromagnetic super-conductive coil we had disappeared with Roll's armor, and the local power plant is understandably reluctant to part with theirs."

"Hmph. Any word yet on Roll's armor?" Rock asked.

Dr. Light's expression turned grim, the corners of his eyes becoming pinched. "As a matter of fact, yes. It's bad. Very bad. I was thinking not to even tell you yet, but I suppose you'll have to know anyway."

Rock experienced the robotic equivalent of feeling a large stone settle in his stomach.

"What? What is it?"

"Follow me," Light instructed. "Take a look for yourself."

With his apprehension circuits already firing repeatedly and his anxiety relays working overtime, Rock followed his creator, trying to ignore the millions of grim hypotheses that sprang to mind. He was equally unsuccessful with each one.

"It's been all over the holovid since just after you went into recharge mode," Dr. Light said. Gesturing angrily towards the living room, he stopped to let Rock complete the journey himself.

Rock glared apprehensively at the three-dimensional display that hung in the middle of the living room. Smoke drifted across the remote camera's lens, partially obscuring the events transpiring before in a film of darkness, and a large, dark something was blocking the lower left hand corner of the screen. Now and again, flashes of light could be seen in the far distance, accompanied by muffled shrieks.

His anger circuits heating, Rock realized that the dark shape obscuring the left corner of the display was a blackened human arm; the radius and ulna poked grimly out of heat-crisped flesh. The cameraman, Rock presumed. Since the grisly third world war, it was not an uncommon practice for news stations to keep broadcasting from operational cameras, though their operators had been killed. The practice disgusted Rock.

"Where is this?" Rock demanded, turning to Dr. Light.

"Croatia," Dr. Light answered. "Just outside the World Power Plant."

"What the hell is Wily doing?" Rock slammed his titanium fist into an open palm. "Does he think I won't try to stop him if he destroys the place first?"

"Worse than that, I'm afraid." Snap stood from his previously unnoticed place on the couch. Rock smiled wanly at his friend, but was unable to muster the enthusiasm for a proper welcome in the face of such destruction.

"What do you mean, 'worse'?"

Snap cleared his throat. "It's you."

"What?!" Rock's eyes went wide.

"Well, not you," Light clarified, stepping into the room and placing a hand on his "son's" shoulder. "It seems that Dr. Wily has created a duplicate of you."

"That's impossible!" Rock snapped, angry at the situation. "He hasn't had the time!"

"We don't know how long he's been working on it," Dr. Light countered, "But if you have your doubts, let me show you." He raised his voice. "Back three minutes."

Obediently, the holovid filled with static for a moment while it accessed the data it had replayed three minutes previously. The image fizzed and stretched across the holographic "cube" of its playing field for a moment before settling down to its replay.

"This is Susan Holmgrem reporting live from the World Power Plant," a willowy figure in purple said into a microphone. Rock recognized her immediately. Susan Holmgrem was a British journalist who was known for her innate ability to find a dangerous situation, get embroiled in it, and then live to report about it. The android felt his anxiety circuits heat.

"Following the heroic crusade against evil by Megaman," she said, "we are standing on the last stronghold of outlaw Dr. William Wily's power. The World Power Plant here in central Croatia--" a map appeared in the corner of the screen, detailing the area, "--is held by a renegade Robot Master calling itself 'Elecman.' Early reports indicate hundreds dead personally at the hands of this monstrous androbot."

A line of blue fire appeared several meters behind the reporter.

Rock's emergency power generator upgraded itself to standby status as his anxiety circuits began to overheat. Dr. Light and Snap could both hear him half-whisper a single word.

"No."

A figure garbed in pale blue stalked quickly towards the camera. Raising an egg-shaped weapon on the end of its arm, it loosed a blast of energy. Susan Holmgrem had barely a split second to turn, not realizing that her own death was upon her.

Rock bit back the impulse to close his eyes as the British reporter dissolved before the screen in an intense flare of light that blanked the holovid display for a moment. When the image was restored, there was no trace of her.

"Oh, shit." It was the cameraman's voice. The camera angle skewed and twisted crazily as the cameraman turned to run for his life. Rock knew it would be of no avail. For a few agonizing seconds, no sound of pursuit could be heard.

Then, without warning, the sound of plasma crackling through the air and a barely perceptible "umph" heralded the demise of the cameraman. The camera crashed to the ground, filling the screen with static for a moment, before the picture was restored.

Rock stared bleakly at a vision of . . .

Himself.

There, pictured with damning clarity on the screen, was Rock's armor, Rock's helmet, and even his own face. Hawk-blue eyes stared directly back at their twins on the other side of the screen.

"Freeze frame." Rock commanded, shaken.

Dr. Light stepped forward. "You see," he said, "Wily has sent 'you' to destroy. What he hopes to accomplish isn't exactly certain, but it's my guess that he's trying to rob the people of their hope."

"It's happened in New Denver, too," Snap continued the thought where the roboticist had left off. "With their 'savior' suddenly against them, the populace has nothing to hope for, and Dr. Wily will have a much easier time destroying you."

"Zoom, times 50," Rock snapped, ignoring both humans. "Coordinates 85,67,1456 to 786,900,3095." He glared at the holographic cube, before turning swiftly to Dr. Light an Snap. "There! Do you see it?"

Both men looked blankly at the seemingly meaningless zoomed-in portion of the screen. Dr. Light suddenly hissed sharply.

"A holographic emitter!" he exclaimed, recognizing the tiny array of lights, barely visible at the top of "Rockman's" face. He furrowed his brow. "But why?"

Snap grunted. "I don't get it. If Wily is such a genius, why didn't he just build a robot to look like you instead of using a hologram cloaker?"

"Maybe he didn't have the time," Dr. Light suggested.

"Maybe it's not a robot," Rock countered. Both Snap and Dr. Light turned to look at him. "What if this isn't Dr. Wily's doing?"

"What purpose--?" Snap didn't bother to finish the question.

Rock paced to the end of the room. "You said that an HSL terrorist stole Roll's armor." It was a statement, not a question. "What if this is purely an HSL plot? That could be an assassin in Roll's armor!"

Dr. Light frowned. "I don't see why the League would be destroying Dr. Wily's base. That seems counterproductive."

Snap smiled grimly. "Methinks there be trouble in paradise," he said. "It makes sense that the bloody League would turn on Dr. Wily once it was obvious that he was losin'. The HSL is probably makin' trouble for him as we speak."

Rock's eyes widened--a human response he hadn't even realized he'd picked up. "If that's true, then Dr. Wily's life is in danger! We have to find him fast!"

"Better to let the League kill 'im," Snap muttered darkly.

Rock shook his head. "One madman killing another madman isn't justice."

"All right," Dr. Light answered. "I'll start working on some way to pinpoint Dr. Wily's location. You get to Croatia and liberate that power plant. Be careful of that impostor. He may still be there, and if he's human, you can't--"

"I know," Rock answered curtly. "Wish me luck."

Nobody in the room spoke as the android activated his telporter. Rock wondered grimly if his last day and a half of life would be spent in battle.

Snap shielded his eyes against the too-bright glare of the blue-white teleport beam.

Thirty-six hours and 59 minutes.

* * * * *

Early morning haze misted the air.

The spire-like structure of the World Power Plant towered over the city of Keliva. Outlined in shades of pale azure and grey by the early morning sky, the large, cylindrical building appeared as a giant, pole-like Christmas Tree. A myriad of lights flashed within, visible only as specks of luminance from the outside. Multicolored electrical discharges from broken power couplings lit up entire floors of the otherwise grimly dark structure. Now and then, the beacon light atop the tower flashed at seemingly random intervals.

The few people who had not fled the city or been exterminated by the renegade robots awoke silently. Acting out of the past few days' habit, they armed themselves with whatever weapons were close to hand. On the fringes of the city, the people switched the safety off of their pistols, charged up their small laser guns, and readied their supplies of grenades and heavy guns.

Each one remembered the threat of the city's self-proclaimed master, Elecman. Holding aloft a barely recognizable stump of a human skeleton, he had proclaimed from his throne room atop the tower to everybody watching the holocaust that he intended to wipe out all pockets of resistance in the city.

Taking hope from the defeat of Dr. Wily's other five generals by Rockman, the people had risen up against Elecman the previous night . . .

Only to be met by Rockman himself, who incinerated half of the militia intent on taking back its freedom by force. Those few who survived the encounter had fled in panic and terror. Was it possible that their savior had turned renegade as well? As the dreaded news spread like wildfire throughout the city's remaining inhabitants, the spark of hope was extinguished, and the people prepared themselves for death.

So, on this early morning, the sentinels were surprised to see a line of blue energy descend upon the Power Plant itself, and not into the city proper . . .

* * * * *

When Rock arrived, with only thirty four hours left to live, he was surprised to find himself in the main structure of the Power Plant itself. Unlike the rest of the Robot Masters Rock had faced, Elecman apparently feared no intrusion by an outside force.

Not sure whether to interpret the information as a good sign or a bad sign, Rock shook his head. Despite the lack of a magnetic field preventing teleportation to the tower itself, the climb up would be no picnic, and the electromagnetic fields generated by the power plant itself made it highly dangerous--if not flat impossible--to teleport within the tower.

Rock gritted his teeth as a wave of pain washed over him. The virus was establishing a firmer grip on his system, and had begun to break past the barrier placed by Dr. Light and Roll. He would have to move quickly in this area, or risk falling prey to the almost certainly lethal effects of the virus.

Cursing Dr. Wily and the HSL, the android turned his crystalline blue eyes up to take in his surroundings. He was at the bottom of a burned-out Power Induction tube, he surmised. The World Power Plant was built in such a way that fifteen of these colossal tubes surrounded the tower's base and extended thousands of feet into the ground.

Every ten feet or so, an access platform jutted out of the cylindrical wall. Rock squinted, trying in vain to see the top of the shaft. Despite adding a little power to augment his vision, Rock could still only see the access ladders and platforms extending upwards for hundreds of feet. There was no telling where the shaft emerged into daylight.

Taking a deep breath to fuel his fusion generator, Rock decided that the best course of action would be to simply climb out of the Power Induction shaft so that he could get a sense of where Icarus was. Undoubtedly, the atomic energy androbot would be at the top of the tower, which would mean grueling hours of climbing.

Hours, Rock reminded himself bleakly, that he could not afford to waste.

"All right," he snapped, "Then stop wasting time!"

The quickest route would be the direct one, so Rock leaped up to the nearest access platform.

Immediately, he was knocked off of his feet and almost back down to the floor by a multidirection sensor 'bot which patrolled the platform.

Irritated at his own carelessness and having lost operating energy already, Rock deftly switched to Rolling Cutter and disposed of the sentry robot in a flash of light. More cautiously, he took an experimental leap upwards to see if a sentry 'bot guarded the next platform.

Sure enough, Rock's aural sensors could detect the supersonic whine of a sensor 'bot's small engine running. As his head cleared the shelf, the sensor 'bot accelerated towards him, stopping at the edge, as if it were confused.

Hoping to destroy it before it could send an alert signal to Icarus, Rock loosed another Rolling Cutter. As he fell back to the first platform, he could hear the snick-snick and muted explosion that signified success.

So it went for several stories. Rock felt himself slipping into the rhythm of the jump-fire-jump pattern quickly, so he conserved time by pondering which weapon in his small arsenal would do the most damage to the enemy he would face at the top of the tower.

His normal plasma buster would suffice in a pinch, Rock supposed. However, Icarus had been built to hold large amounts of energy within himself, and thus was double-shielded against energy discharges. While enough plasma bullets would eventually take the atomic energy androbot down, Rock did not look forward to the long and arduous process of the battle.

Hyper Bombs, while useful, would detonate too slowly; Icarus had always been fast, and Rock assumed that, if anything, he would be faster now. Besides that, Icarus was an excellent jumper, and simple calculations indicated that he could leap out of harm's way long before the bomb exploded. So Bombman's weapon was out.

Using the super-strength he had "acquired" after defeating Gutsman would most likely prove suicidal. Rock briefly entertained the idea of merely rushing his adversary and tearing him apart limb from limb, but he knew that doing so would take too long; a few well-placed electrical discharges by Icarus would end Rock quickly.

The Ice Slasher might prove useful, Rock mused as he disposed of another sentry 'bot and leaped to its abandoned platform. Synthesized water inside the circuits of an electrical-energy storage robot would probably prove disastrous. However, after a moment, Rock dismissed the idea. Ice, no matter how strong, would probably fail to penetrate the double-shielding of Icarus' core generator.

So . . . that left Firestorm and Rolling Cutter.

"Oh, have you seen the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, the Muffin man?"

Rock was abruptly torn from his analysis by an unnaturally high-pitched voice. Whirling around to face the possible threat, Rock was partly dismayed and partly relieved when he saw nothing.

The voice spoke again, and Rock traced it to its source; a large speakerphone several stories up in an observation bay, meant to be used by overseers who supervised repairs to the Power Induction shaft while it was dormant.

"Oh I must take the A train," the voice singsonged. Rock recognized it now, though it was changed by a strange overtone that he could not quite place. It was Icarus who spoke. Rock hastened his ascent of the tower, barely pausing as several broken power couplings sprang to life, blasting bolts of energy into the air.

Leaping and avoiding the tracking sensor robots and the rhythmic electrical discharges of broken power couplings, Rock made his way to the top of the shaft.

That, at least, was what he intended.

Halfway to the top of the Induction shaft Rock took a short rest to let his leg hydraulics cool down. It was then that he noticed that from this point upwards, nearly all of the service platforms had been blasted apart. The only way up was a rickety access ladder that had been badly damaged by plasma burns and laser fire.

"Rock, my old friend. Is that you?" Rock froze at the mention of his name by his adversary.

"What do you want?" Rock demanded as he grabbed the first rung of the ladder. He grimaced as the whole structure shook. This was likely to break under a human's weight, let alone a titanium armored android!

"Oh it is you!" the voice cackled, and then broke into gales of laughter. Had Rock been human, he would have shivered at the disturbing sound, overlaid with the voice of madness. "Marvelous, just marvelous!" Icarus' voice began to grate against Rock's aural sensors. "Well, are you in the mood for a game?"

"A game," Rock spat as he continued up the ladder. "And just what did you have in mind?"

"Anybody who intrudes on Elecman's domain," said the voice, "must escape the gleaming tunnel of death." The latter part was said with such a melodramatic flair that Rock rolled his eyes.

"Gleaming Tunnel of Death," he muttered. "Sounds great."

"I'm glad you feel that way," Elecman replied from the speakerphone. "It makes the chase so much more fun. If you survive, I'll see you at the top, Rock!"

"Your circuitry's screwed," Rock said under his breath.

He had been so intent on climbing the ladder and his short conversation with Elecman that the android didn't notice the pale green orb at first.

To his right, a green sphere slowly descended, its anti-gravity engine slowly thrumming. Rock snapped his head up in alarm as it came closer.

"What in . . ."

Abruptly, two long shafts sprouted from either end of the sphere, each with a photoreceptive "eye" on the end. And just as quickly, with no warning, two bolts of electricity blasted from the apparatus.

"Damn!"

Rock swore as both bolts of energy slammed into him, causing him to lose his grip and fall several meters before once again establishing a firm grip on the rungs of the ladder, which shuddered dangerously at the sudden application of stress to its structure.

Taking quick aim as the thing descended up him again, Rock loosed several plasma bursts and watched with grim satisfaction as it exploded into a million pieces in midair. However, he had little time to enjoy his short victory. Looking up, he saw several more of the green orbs descending towards him.

Gathering his courage and hastening up the ladder, he methodically destroyed the remaining robots. Once at the top of the ladder, he found himself standing on a small but sturdy platform. Several meters above him and to the right was another platform, and beyond that, another. After that, he could see daylight filtering down through a hole in the ceiling.

However, he could see no way to reach either platform.

Rock doubled over as his entire system flooded with pain signals. The virus was making itself felt again, and this time, more clearly. Like a living thing crawling in his head, Rock could feel the disruptive program corroding the hasty defenses thrown up by Dr. Light and Roll, and knew that it was only a matter of time before the virus won.

Accumulating energy and gritting his teeth, Rock released a low-level electrical shock into his brain. It would hurt like hell, but it wouldn't endanger his existence, so the Second Law would still allow him to act.

With a scream like that of a wounded animal, Rock rolled onto his side. The electrical energy coursed through his brain, destroying small, non-essential nodes and circuits. His pain circuits began to overheat, and Rock suddenly realized that if he didn't do anything to control the charge, his brain would overload, and he would suffer logic breakdown.

In human terms, the pain would drive him to insanity.

Grinding his teeth until they literally spat sparks, Rock, by sheer force of android will, batted down the pain until it was within manageable levels. However, the effort left him spent and gasping on his side. All systems screamed for energy from his already overtaxed fusion unit. As emergency power strove to compensate, Rock's nonessential functions shut down. Sight, hearing and speech were all sacrificed for a short time so that he could continue to live.

Several minutes passed while Rock writhed on the ground.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity Rock could stand, and his vision began to flicker back on, with lines of static running across the world for a few seconds. System functions returned to normal, and Rock knew that he had beaten back the virus for a little while longer.

"Now that was amusing!" Elecman's voice floated up from below, where the speaker was situated. "What's the matter Rock? Feeling sick?" The Robot Master giggled helplessly at his own joke.

Not wasting breath to reply, Rock turned to survey his surroundings once again.

"Well," Elecman continued, I think it's time to activate the Gleaming Tunnel of Death. I'll even give you a sporting chance!"

Rock felt a strong electrical current, but could not discern its origin.

With sudden clarity, he looked down . . .

. . . and at the bottom story, hazy with distance, he saw every electrical wire, power coupling and open circuit flare to life. Electricity blasted across the Power Induction shaft in lethal arcs, lighting up the entire structure in a white-hot spider's web of death.

Then the next story's circuits flared to life.

It was headed towards Rock.

"You have exactly one minute to escape the shaft before you get roasted," Elecman said gleefully. "Don't disappoint me."

Looking vainly for an avenue of escape, though he had already searched, Rock cursed inwardly.

Above his head, as if in answer to his prayers, came a familiar sound.

With a hiss and a bass sound so deep in was almost subsonic, Rock watched a block appear in midair. Once again, his sensors went crazy trying to figure it out; it looked as if it were made of glass and quartzite with steel laced into the structure. This type, though, was different than the kind he had encountered in New Shirewick. Instead of being transparent, it looked like a piece of brass.

Not pausing to praise good fortune, Rock gathered his legs under him and leaped as high as he could, landing with jarring impact in the block. Was this Elecman's "sporting chance"? Rock leaped immediately as another block appeared to his right, and, without hesitation, continued to the solid ledge on the wall.

A strange snapping sound permeated by an ultra-low growl alerted Rock to the fact that the web of energy had almost reached his position. He had, at best, maybe a half of a minute remaining to him.

Quickly climbing the nearest access ladder to the next story up, Rock could see a ladder several meters away. It was out of jumping distance, even if he had the time to properly gauge his power and make a perfect jump.

However, his auto-trajectory calculator confirmed that he could never make a horizontal leap of that distance from a standing position.

The base of Rock's feet began to tingle through his titanium boots, and he knew time was running out.

Out of nowhere, a block materialized with its distinctive voomph sound.

Rock immediately stepped on to it, and then to the next once it appeared.

Not waiting to see if another would appear, Rock jumped and caught the bottom rung of the ladder. He pulled himself hastily hand-over-hand to the top and out into the fresh air. Quickly, he rolled to the side and ran as quickly as he could away from the hole from where he had emerged.

Mere seconds after he did so, a massive pillar of electricity blasted out, catching on anything metal nearby. The ground itself crackled menacingly with the almost living presence of electrical current, and Rock hurriedly moved away from it, lest he be caught in the backlash.

Waiting a few moments to make sure that he was now safe, Rock proceeded back to the lip of the shaft. On the surface, the huge cylindrical shape of the tower itself was tangent to the circular opening of the shaft. From there, Rock would have to climb up the side, over the long drop he had just emerged from until he reached a point at which he could get inside the actual tower itself.

Seeing no point in wasting time, the blue-armored android swung himself onto the nearest escape ladder and climbed up. It was not long before he reached the first ledge, and found himself staring straight into a long, deep shaft like the one from which he had just emerged.

The drop from where he stood was easily almost half a mile, which was more than sufficient to kill him if he were to lose his balance. Far below, in the distance-misted depths of the shaft, Rock's optical sensors could detect electrical discharges like the ones he had already encountered.

It was not the lethal drop that held his attention, however.

What held Rock's gaze were six blocks, floating in the middle of the air in seemingly random order. With no support visible to any range of light that Rock was capable of detecting, they were a mystery. However, no matter how strange they were, they seemed to be the only way across to the access ladder that hung several meters away and led further up the tower.

Rather than ponder the enigma, Rock took a short jump and landed on the nearest of the floating blocks. It didn't so much as budge under his weight, and Rock suppressed his curiosity. Measuring carefully, he leaped again, and soon found himself on the block below the ladder.

Turning back, Rock found his mystery solved. On the side of the wall he had just left was a large electromagnetic apparatus that held the blocks in place in mid-air. It was a design often used in large buildings, as a precaution against entire floors collapsing.

Rock jumped and grabbed hold of the ladder.

For the next several floors, Rock found himself repeating the same action over and over; climb the ladder, avoid the live wires, and keep climbing. After the fifteenth such story, he arrived at a small landing covered with rubble. Rock recognized it; it was the entrance to the large electromagnetic portion of the plant, that was usually comprised of several hundred electromagnetic super-conductive coils.

Sudden inspiration struck Rock, and he lifted the two large boulders blocking the main entrance and flung them over the side of the building. If he could find a super-conductive EM coil, maybe he'd be able to perform an emergency surgery on himself and get the Magnet Beam working.

Sure enough, several loose super-conductive EM coils littered the ground. Finding one that was in good repair, Rock picked it up and moved back out of the broken room. Sitting cross-legged and acutely aware of how little time had had to complete this operation, Rock concentrated.

It was like shifting his hand into plasma-buster configuration. He concentrated and focused the energy from his matter-synthesis module in his upper arm. Soon, the armor melted away, revealing his circuitry underneath, and the small space left open for the EM coil.

Rock quickly placed the coil inside, secured the necessary wires, and let the hole in his arm close. To make sure that his system was still functioning, he ran a few quick self-diagnostics. Aside from the virus eating at his sanity and functionality, he seemed to be in perfect working order, Rock thought wryly.

Not quite trusting the diagnostic, Rock manually switched from weapon to weapon, to make sure that he was still capable of using his fully array of weapons. From silver and green to silver and grey to gold and crimson to silver and blue to silver and brown, and back to his normal colors, his armor shifted as he activated each weapon.

"Huh," he snorted. "Maybe I should've been 'Rainbow Man' instead of Rockman."

Brushing aside his small jest, he continued up the tower . . .

* * * * *

"I've found it," Dr. Light said, rubbing his temples.

Roll looked up from her work on Rock's next enhancement. "You what?"

Dr. Light gestured to a red glowing dot on the holographic globe that floated in the air before him. "I found Dr. Wily's fortress. It's in the Andes Mountains."

"Good! Yes!" Snap crowed from behind. He had become something of a fixture in the Light household for the past few days, turning away reporters, going on errands to buy components, etc.. Roll had declared the Australian a Godsend. "Now Rockman can go trash Dr. Wily!"

"No he can't," Roll corrected. "He can trash Dr. Wily's guardians. If he hurts Dr. Wily, his own programming will kill him." She said it with such stark bleakness that Snap took a step back.

"I didn't mean that he should--"

"Oh, hell."

All conversation stopped at Dr. Light's curse.

"What is it?" Roll and Snap asked in unison, moving towards the roboticist.

Dr. Light punched a few controls, and a section of the globe enlarged itself until it was holographic image of Skull Castle. "This is from one of our video satellites," Dr. Light explained. "The damn thing would have been impossible to find without Roll's suggestion of analyzing the control chips from the neutralized Robot Masters."

Roll lowered her head, accepting the compliment. "So what's the problem?"

"That." Dr. Light pointed to a dark line outside of the fortress.

At first, Roll thought it was a cloud. But as she looked closer, a numbness gripped her circuits. "It's a siege," she said. "The HSL is trying to besiege Wily's castle?!"

"Looks like that," Snap conceded.

"That's crazy! They'll be torn to ribbons by the robots! Wily won't have any compunctions about--" Roll stopped in mid-rant as a small golden speck detached itself from the fortress and floated towards the army camped outside.

Without warning, several white-hot bursts of plasma blasted from the golden speck. The hologram image was too fuzzy for Roll to clearly discern the details, but the effect was immediate. Several anti-aircraft missiles launched from the ground, intent on their target; the golden speck.

"It's Wily," Roll realized as she augmented her vision. "Dr. Wily is in that flying machine!"

She voiced no concern for his safety; after all, the missiles seemed hardly a threat. His gold-brass colored mech dispensed each of them with well-aimed plasma shots before any of the missiles could score a hit.

Dr. Light shook his head. "Wily's going to kill them all unless somebody can stop this madness."

"Yeah," Roll said acerbically. "Somebody. I just hope Rock is up to it. This virus-guard," she held up a newly-completed chip, "will help repel the virus, but it won't destroy it."

Snap shook his head. "It just don't seem fair," he muttered.

"It isn't," Roll answered.

* * * * *

The LighTech trash compactor robot took another hop towards Rock.

The ground literally shook with the impact of the titanic robot's descent, and cracks appeared in the structure of the long platform upon which Rock stood. Calculating quickly, Rock realized to his dismay that it would only take another two jumps by the robot to dislodge the already weakened infrastructure of the tower's eighty-fifth story floor and send Rock tumbling to his almost certain demise.

Attempting to go around the robot would take too much time; already Rock had wasted another precious hour of life in jumping, blasting and ducking his way through the twisted maze of rubble and live wires that comprised the remains of the World Power Plant. Although thankfully there had been no further dialogue between himself and Elecman, Rock's anxiety relays still threatened to overload his emotions circuit board.

Only a direct charge towards the robot would give Rock the ghost of a chance he needed to arrive to do battle with Elecman with enough energy to properly function. Although trash-compacting 'bots were doggedly single-minded in their tasks, it was easy to outsmart them, so Rock was fairly sure that if he got too close to the machine for its optical sensors to detect him, then it would forget about him.

Of course, he reminded himself curtly, there was always the chance that Dr. Wily or one of his robotic assistants had modified this particular robot to be able to sense object below its line of sight. In that case, a direct charge would be highly foolish, if not openly suicidal.

"No time for debates," he growled to himself.

Detecting sound, the trash-compactor robot took another leap towards Rock, this time flying high up in the air before beginning its inexorable descent.

"Dammit!" Rock rolled and jumped to his feet as fast as he could in an attempt to reach the access ladder to the next story up. His calculations had supposed that the robot would jump as it had already been jumping, and had not accounted for the possibility of the extremely high jump it made now.

The trash compactor smashed to the floor. Its descent was accompanied by a thunderclap-loud crack, which Rock knew to be the main support beams for the already gutted level. His internal laser-gyroscope indicated a swift tilt in the floor's angle, he could see with dream-like slowness that the entire floor was turning at a forty-five degree angle, dumping the hapless trash-compactor 'bot off the edge.

Rock leaped as high as he could, with what little force he could muster from pushing against the falling floor. Gritting his teeth, he extended his left arm as far as he could . . .

And grabbed the ledge of the next story's outer wall with his titanium-gloved fingertips. Rock breathed a quick sigh of relief, followed by a wry smile at how human his reaction had been. First he was swearing, then dreaming, and now sighing with relief.

In the past week, he had become more human-like than he would have ever imagined possible within his short lifetime. However, he reflected darkly, if the war and tragedy he had been forced to participate in had been the price of such humanity, he would gladly have gone without it.

Stop philosophizing, you fool.

Rock shook himself out of his train of thought and pulled himself up to and over the edge of the floor. He was now on the eighty-sixth floor of the tower; the final one before the spire of the tower, at the top of which Elecman surely resided.

"Okay. Weapons check," he muttered to himself as he headed for the locked double-doors that opened into the stairwell leading to the top of the spire. He ran a quick diagnostic of himself to make sure that the virus hadn't penetrated any important systems, and then checked to make sure that his matter-synthesis unit had enough operation energy to be able to function properly.

Cursing inwardly, he found that the virus had corrupted some of the molecular-structure synthesis node in his module. While all auto-repair systems were working full time on the problem as their top priority, Rock was still doubtful that he'd be able to use either the Rolling Cutter or the Ice Slasher for several minutes.

And he couldn't afford to wait for those minutes.

A few quick blasts from his plasma buster opened the door to the stairwell, and Rock was faced with another problem. While it was obvious that there once had been stairs leading up the fifteen story shaft, it was just as obvious that they had been destroyed.

Only a single, long ladder led up to the observation room at the apex of the tower.

And, as Rock had suspected there would be, several broken power couplings spat deadly electrical bolts across the gap which he would need to ascend. Well, nobody had ever promised Rock that any of this would be easy.

"Or enjoyable," he muttered to himself as he began his climb.

He managed to negotiate the long shaft without sustaining any hits, but he had come close to being hit by the flashing ribbons of energy so many times that his emergency-energy reactor had nearly short circuited in trying to supply him with extra power.

In human terms, his nerves were shot.

Rock grinned bitterly. Yes, he surely had become very human.

Taking several deep breaths and making sure that he was as ready as he could be, Rock pushed open the hatch that led to the observation room.

Immediately, he was lifted off his feet and thrown several meters backwards by a powerful electric surge. Rock crashed to the ground in front of two large boulder-like pieces of rubble. His emergency systems all screamed for attention and extra power, and Rock knew without checking that his energy operating meter would read at down to one-third operating power.

"Wooo ha ha ha ha ha!" You should have seen the look on your face!" Rock jumped to his feet and dodged between the boulders, ignoring his complaining hydraulics. Elecman's taunt rang across the room and echoed across the double-shielded walls. "I wish I had a camera!"

Not wasting breath on a reply, Rock hunkered down. That blast had been enough to nearly overload all of his systems; he would have to be extremely cautious now. His matter-synthesis module was still nearly a minute way from being completely repaired, and the process had been retarded by the damage he had just sustained.

"What's the matter Rock?" Elecman's voice snapped, suddenly angry. "Don't you want to come out and play? If it's hide-and-seek you want, I'll be happy to oblige you!"

Straining for a view of his adversary, Rock batted down panic as the black-and-crimson armored androbot leaped into the air and loosed several blasts of energy in Rock's direction. Rock only caught a glimpse between the boulders of Elecman, his face half-obscured by the lightning bolt eyemask he wore.

The energy bolts hit the boulders, and Rock dropped and rolled to avoid the shards of stone which exploded next to him, scattering in all directions. Taking advantage of the momentary cover the cloud of dust provided him. Rock shot several quick plasma bursts in the general direction he calculated Elecman to be.

A few grunts and a thudding sound indicated that at least a few had connected.

As the cloud cleared, Rock found himself leaping--almost out of what he would have called instinct in a human. No sooner did his feet leave the ground than a sizzling bolt of lightning hissed past the place he had just occupied. Tendrils of electricity reached out and snapped at his boots. If Rock hadn't already been in the air, he would have jumped.

"That," said Elecman in a totally deadpan voice, "Was foolish."

Rock landed, tensed and ready for battle. Elecman stood several meters away from him, apparently unscathed, but obviously annoyed. "I don't know what you pulled on the rest of the Generals to defeat them," Elecman mused, "but it will avail you nothing here. This is my kingdom!"

"You're insane," Rock spat, and shot several more plasma bursts in an arc. Elecman leaped high in the air, easily avoiding all but the highest-aimed of the plasma bullets. Noiselessly, he retaliated with coruscating ropes of burning energy.

With nothing between himself and the bolts to draw the charge away, Rock leaped as high as he could and hoped for the best. The sensation-overload in his foot circuits alerted him to the fact that although he had avoided the brunt of the attack, a few more close calls like that would be his end.

"Insane, is it?" Elecman landed and grinned like a mad hare. "Yes, I suppose it looks that way to you. It certainly did to them." He gestured around the room, and what Rock had at first taken to be just black scorch marks on the floor turned out to be--upon closer inspection--bones blackened by heat and fire.

"You've been taking lessons from Fireman," Rock said, trying to sound noncommittal. "But he died just as easily as you will."

"Not as easy as you think perhaps," Elecman chortled. With several acrobatic leaps interspersed with a quick succession of bolt-fire, he crowed. "You see? I can fly!"

Rock, busy dodging the shots and trying desperately to keep ahead of the pattern, managed to score a few good hits on the Robot Master before Elecman landed once again, immediately shooting off another round of electric death.

The raven-haired android dropped to the floor and was relieved to hear the soft ping that indicated that his matter synthesis module was repaired. Switching to the Rolling Cutter, he smirked. If he could get two or three of these lodged in Elecman's system, the energy would surely overload him.

He hurled the first one without warning.

Elecman fell to his knees and screeched with inhuman rage as the first of the circular scissors-blades slashed deep into his torso. The lightning he had been about to release upon Rock turned back on him, attracted by the extra metal. The renegade Robot Master twitched involuntarily as the energy coursed through his system, overloading several unimportant subsystems.

"You--you hurt me!" Elecman's eyes narrowed. "Now you're dead!"

Rock had already fired off another Rolling Cutter, and succeeded in striking his enemy again before Elecman could fully rise to his feet. Overconfident, he stepped closer, sure that the next hit would be the finishing blow.

With a roar of anger, Elecman sprang forward and toppled Rock. Sitting on the blue-armored android's chest, he raised his hands in the air. "Never screw with the King of the World!" he hissed.

A subsonic hiss proclaimed the arrival of another Rolling Cutter in Rock's hand. Before Elecman could release his electricity into Rock's frame, the Robot Hunter slashed upwards, cutting off Elecman's hands.

Elecman fell backwards, looking with horror at his maimed arms.

Drawing out the moment for the sake of those who had died at this mad-robot's hands, Rock summoned another blade. "The problem with having wings," he said quietly, "is that they can be clipped."

"Bastard!"

Elecman's last word hung on the air long after he had overloaded and exploded. His torso flew across the room as his lower body disintegrated. Rock took several deep breaths to recharge. That had been too close.

He approached the blasted torso of Elecman, whose head had been torn off as is flew past an up-jutting steel beam that had been dislodged from the ceiling during the fight. Feeling like a grave robber, Rock rooted around in the torso until he found the main control unit and removed the Control Chip.

"Thirty-two hours left," Rock muttered quietly.

He looked a final time at his dead enemy--once his best friend among the Robot Masters--and frowned. Sorrow swept through him: a bleak, cold wind that he could almost literally feel inside. This was no way to live.

But it was better than dying.

"Dying," Rock muttered. A few weeks ago, he would have referred to it as deactivation.

With the last of the Robot Masters defeated, Rock knew he could finally rest for a few days. Dr. Wily would be hiding from the authorities now that his power was all but broken, and Dr. Light could destroy the virus which plagued Rock.

It was over.

Turning the thought around in his head, Rock almost smiled. He could live a normal life now.

The hawk-eyed android disappeared in a line of blue-white fire.

Continue to League--Chapter 10
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