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"Let me tell you something, rookies. The first attack on Sigma's Fortress was the worst fighting I'd ever seen. Never underestimate the power of robots and repliroids to hold off an army; even from a poorly-designed citadel. It was a bitch, and no mistake. Now listen up, while I tell you some tricks, I learned . . ."
--excerpt from a recording of training classes taught by Irregular Hunter Mac

Chapter 10

League

The bomb exploded high overhead, momentarily blinding Monique.

In her pirated armor and buster look-alike, Monique Jansen was virtually invincible. Why, then, did she feel so helpless? She couldn't even remember what she had been sent here for. Blinking her eyes hard and beating back the pain that threatened to explode her temples, she took a ragged breath.

It had begun when she arrived in New Denver. As far as she could tell, she had been perfectly fine before that. But as soon as she teleported down to . . .

What was she thinking?

"Damn," the assassin muttered listlessly. "Getting senile already, girl? Pull yourself together!"

Denver. Something about New Denver . . .

Try as she might, Monique couldn't quite grasp the thread of the thought she had been pursuing moments ago. Exasperated, she gave up and returned to the business of staying alive. She had long since completed her mission of striking terror into the populace of both New Denver and Keliva as "Rockman." However, something had not been quite right.

After she teleported to Keliva, she vaguely remembered killing a few people from the media before heading for the city proper and beginning the slaughter there. She had learned in New Denver--to her delight--that conventional bullets merely flattened themselves impotently against the body armor she wore. Knowing that had made her job in Keliva more fun.

However, as she was resting from her first attack, she had overheard on the radio that Rockman--the real Rockman had arrived and destroyed Elecman, the Robot Master in charge of this city.

The people of Keliva, though easily deceived at first, were not stupid. It took them very little time to realize that Monique had been an impostor, and from that conclusion sprang murderous anger. Suddenly, what had begun as shooting fish in a barrel for Monique became a race for her life.

Armed with armor-piercing laser cannons and other black-market energy weapons, the citizens of Keliva had declared open war upon Monique, and the twenty-four hour manhunt had begun. The highly-trained assassin would normally have had no problem, but she couldn't seem to get her thoughts together, and every time she tried to use the teleporter, it malfunctioned.

Not, Monique decided, that using it would do her much good. Whatever assurances that lying Brazilian Juan Iago had given her of the teleporter's safety had been proven false when Monique first landed in New Denver with a screaming headache and blurred vision.

If she lived through this, Monique would feed the filthy bastard his own lying tongue.

Now that she had found a temporary refuge in an abandoned hotel, Monique had a few breaths worth of time to disassemble the teleporter and take a look at it. A morass of wires and microchips greeted her eyes as she removed the faceplate of the complicated device.

"Bloody hell." Monique rubbed her temples. It would take forever to fix this damnable mess, and she had a few minutes of respite at the most before her hunters once again drove her from safety and back into the dangerous war zone of Keliva.

Concentrating on what she could remember of electronics of servomech design, the blue-armored assassin carefully removed a burnt microchip and examined the space underneath. The contact surface seemed to be fine, so it was just the microchip that had been damaged, as far as she could see.

Turning the tiny chip over and scrutinizing the bottom, she found a small ray of hope in the form of six silver symbols:

NKB-56m

The chip was of a common line that could be found in many household objects. The 56m type of microchips was a type often used in televid devices; as an assassin, it had been Monique's business to memorize all the components of communication devices so that she would know which one to remove. After all, a victim who has no contact with the outside world is by far more helpless than one who has.

Now if only she could find a . . .

What was she thinking?

Monique shook her head. Damn this headache! It made concentration impossible. If she couldn't collect her thoughts, she'd be better off dead, anyway! The assassin noticed her fist was clenched, and she relaxed it.

Something tiny clattered to the floor.

A microchip?

Ah, yes! The teleporter component! She needed to find a televid in this hotel, and maybe then she could escape from this wretched pit of death. Then . . .

Her scattered thoughts focused into a single burning point.

Then she would seek out the HSL and kill every last one of the bastards.

* * * * *

It was unusually quiet when Rock arrived.

He had half-expected Roll to be waiting for him in the lab with joyous greetings. He had dared hope that Snap and Bess might be there, grinning from ear to ear, waiting to tell him that the virus could be neutralized.

He had even hoped that Dr. Light would be waiting with a virus neutralization disc in his hand. Even the confused clamor of the mass media would have been welcome in the face of what greeted Rock upon his return.

The lab stood empty. Fluorescent lights in the ceiling cast harsh blades of light against work tables and the walls. One of the lights in the corner had burned out, and dark shadows stood starkly at weird angles against the otherwise sterile brightness of the room.

Rock's brows drew together, and he slumped against the nearest table. The thermal output level of his critical operating circuits was still abnormally high due to the dangerous amount of raw electricity to which he had been exposed during his battle with the insane Elecman. His auto-repair systems had settled from constant alarm down to an angry buzz as they drank up all of the reserve energy his emergency generator could supply.

His internal gyroscopic lasers flickered as their power was sapped by his auto-repair circuits, and a wave of dizziness assaulted him. Gripping the table more firmly, the hawk-eyed android worked his way towards the door. Irritation born of discomfort and impatience made him grind his teeth as he struggled to make himself stand upright.

Where was everybody?

Rock gripped the doorknob and turned. Unsure whether it was the fault of the virus or overload from the battle with Elecman, Rock blinked dumbly at the doorknob. He had miscalculated his own strength and twisted it off of the door.

Angry now, and suffering from the effects of the eroding virus, Rock pushed the door open, ignoring the soft snap that signified the demise of the rest of the doorknob's fixture. As he shuffled down the hallway, he banged his shin on the edge of a table.

Pain lanced through his leg and Rock collapsed. A creeping, unclean feeling crawled through his brain, and he suddenly knew with horrified certainty that the virus had located the circuit bundle that interpreted various signals from exterior sensors and turned them into physical sensation.

For a nanosecond before the virus indulged itself in overloading Rock's pain sensors, he felt entirely helpless and vulnerable, and wondered if he had finally found what it felt like to be entirely human.

And then it began.

* * * * *

Snap dozed in the library on an old, ripped-up overstuffed armchair that Dr. Light had provided from somewhere. Bess snored softly on his lap, and Julie was off watching Roll work. The Australian rubbed an itch on his nose in irritation. Rock had not yet returned from the battle with the Robot Master in Keliva, and everybody in the house had been getting edgy.

Dr. Light had taken the virus-guard developed by Roll and improved upon it a bit while waiting for his "son" to return from battle, and now, at Roll's insistence, sat in the kitchen grumbling to himself and munching on cold summer sausage slices.

With nothing of import to do, Snap had settled down for a quick nap wile waiting for his android friend to arrive. The early spring rain beat a steady, lulling pattern on the window panes. Snap took a deep breath and sank further into peaceful sleep.

A terrifying, unearthly scream made Snap sit bolt upright, and Bess awoke with a start.

The windows in the library all simultaneously bent outwards and shattered with an abrupt, wrenching sound. Snap covered Bess's ears and tried to bury his own head in the overstuffed cushions of the armchair.

The horrible wailing went on and on, never stopping for breath, and seeming to get only louder. It wasn't until Snap had successfully pushed his head in between two cushions and had found some brief respite from the awful noise that he realized that he recognized the voice.

Rock?!

Now all human semblance left the voice, and it became a shrieking stream of ultra-high beeps and twisted, metallic grinding, so unbearably intense that Snap's stomach started to churn and his muscles locked.

Unable to move for sheer terror, Snap shuddered. How was it possible for a machine to feel pain--much less so intensely? He gritted his teeth and forced himself to pull his head free. Covering his ears with both hands, he leaned down to Bess and yelled.

"Stay here! I'm going to see!"

Bess nodded, and covered her ears. The child's eyes were so wide that Snap could see the whites of her eyes all the way around her irises. He didn't begrudge his daughter her fear one bit; the desperation and pain in the android's cry was so powerful that it might have been organic. The sound of it awoke a primal, animal fear within Snap's own brain.

He turned and dashed down the stairs, hands still pressed against his ears. He missed a step and, unable to grab the railing, stumbled the remainder of the way down. Heedless of his own hurts, the Australian continued on until he reached the source of the noise.

Dr. Light, wearing the type of headphones used in industrial shops to block out the sounds of loud machinery, knelt over Rock holding a microchip in a pair of needle nose pliers in one hand and a micolaser saw in the other.

The red, cylindrical robot that Dr. Light called Eddie stood next to the roboticist, its cargo area jammed with oil-slick nuts, bolts and wires. It was spattered with a dark liquid that was leaking from the top of Rock's head, where Dr. Light's laser saw had cut away a section of synthetic scalp to operate.

Roll sat astride her counterpart's chest, pressing down on Rock's head. She had several deep gashes on her left arm, with wires, cables and syntheflesh shredded like paper. Her jaw was clenched so hard that Snap could see the muscle-cables straining against the pale syntheflesh of her chin.

As for Rock . . .

He was virtually unrecognizable. He shook spasmodically, legs kicking. Had not Roll's knees been pinning her brother's elbows to the floor, his arms would also be flailing; the deep cracks in the floor attested to that. His armor had been blackened in the fight with the last Robot Master, and soot stained the floor where he lay.

His face was the worst of it, though.

It was as if some demon from hell had crawled forth from the black and burning depths and inhabited the body of Rockman. The android's muscle cables tensed and twitched so erratically, it looked as though some obscene living thing was moving beneath his skin.

His mouth was wide open and blasting forth that horrible, terrifying noise.

And his eyes blazed lapis fire, laced with suffering. Dark coolant leaked out from around the edges of his eye sockets, looking like nothing so much as blood.

Snap blanched and took a step backwards.

Dr. Light jammed the pliers into the top of Rock's head and twisted, inserting the microchip. In his coolant-splattered lab coat, he looked like a mad doctor from an old horror movie cutting apart a bleeding corpse. Snap half expected him to raise his arms and shout "it's alive!"

Instantly, Rock's body stopped twitching, and the relentless scream trailed off into silence.

Not quite silence, Snap realized after a moment. Starved for fuel, Rock's fusion generator was forcing him to breathe, and the quick, ragged sobs that broke from the android's throat wrenched Snap's heart.

Roll's tense whisper was a blasphemy against the morbid stillness that had suddenly settled upon the area. "Damn you, Wily."

The android woman stood and looked at her left arm--ruined below her elbow joint. Snap could tell by the way it hung limply at her side that all power to it had been cut. He realized after a moment that she must have been forcing power through the half-disintegrated circuits in order to hold her brother down, and that it must have hurt immensely.

He must have been staring, for Roll looked at him and then back down at her arm, rather self-consciously. "It's nothing," she muttered. Grimly, like a doctor who is still not sure her patient will survive, she bent over and hoisted Rock by his waist with her one good arm.

Dr. Light stood slowly. The blood had drained from his face, and his eyes were dull. Had his hands not been shaking so violently, he could have been mistaken for a cadaver. He blinked twice and then spoke.

"Get him to the lab. We can still repair his neural net if we hurry. That virus damn near wiped out all of his motor-control circuits." He passed a hand in front of his eyes, as if to ward off a ghost, and then stalked after Roll, wiping his hands on his jacket. Eddie trundled after.

Snap took a step forward.

"Can I help? Do you--" He suddenly realized that he would probably be more of a hindrance than anything else in such delicate work. "Do you need me to carry anything?"

Dr. Light turned back and smiled wearily. "No. But if you are familiar enough with the IBN-2341 computer series, you can help access his backup logs so we can reconstruct his circuitry."

Snap nodded once and followed.

* * * * *

Finally, it stopped.

Rock could only lie inert while the remains of his emergency systems forced his body to breathe air so that his internal fusion chamber could gather fuel. The pain had been so intense that he was sure he would die. In truth, he had longed for deactivation after the first half-minute of it, and it had taken almost five minutes for Dr. Light and Roll to perform their miraculously quick surgery.

While in his pain-induced frenzy, Rock had barely noticed that the virus had spread to encompass more of his cybernetic brain, and that he had been thrashing like a madman. His visual sensors recorded with damning clarity his own hands tearing the flesh from his sister's arm while she held him down.

The heat generated by his over reactive circuits was quickly killing the android. In fact, it would have been merely fourteen more seconds until the malfunction caused his generator to overload and turn the lab and several blocks around it into a smoking, radioactive rubble. Rock wondered if Roll and Dr. Light had known.

For what seemed an eternity--for his internal chronometer had been destroyed by the virus--Rock hung in a hazy limbo. With no way to sense the passing of time, the voices and sounds he heard, and even his own thoughts, all swam together in a disconcerting mishmash. He could barely discern which were his thoughts, and which were words spoken by others.

His optical scanning unit made everything into a multicolored blur, and he felt as if he were burning up. The sensation was worse than when he had fought Fireman; the Robot master's attacks had come from without, while this heat came from within. Rock could feel his own body only as a network of dull aches and threads of fire.

Unable to lose "consciousness" and slip into recharge mode, Rock endured in silence; anything was better than the agony of before.

And suddenly, he was aware again.

Time collapsed from its all-encompassing nothingness into rational seconds, minutes, hours. Rock could feel the reassuring picoseconds ticking away in his newly-repaired chronometer, and wondered how long he had been under repair.

Double-checking the new time entry with his last recorded time "awake," he frowned.

Eight hours, 43 minutes.

Rock sat up and looked around. Dr. Light, Roll, Julie and Bess were all in the room, staring anxiously at him. Expecting the worst, he ran a self-diagnostic program to see what kind of shape he was in.

Surprisingly, not only were all of his primary systems operating well within green specifications, but a quick check of his weapons submenu revealed that the "Thunder Beam" had been added to his arsenal. For a split second, he wondered who had made up the names for his weapons.

Rock swung his feet over the edge of the table and grinned reassuringly at his audience.

"I'm all right," he said.

The harsh, croaking sound of his own voice made him start. A check of his vocal processors confirmed that his screaming had shorted out several transistors and blown two of the four microspeakers which comprised his "vocal cords." The remaining two were badly damaged and the loss of information transmitted to them via broken circuits resulted in a degradation of sound.

In short--he had screamed himself hoarse.

Everybody in the room broke into relieved grins, and Snap slapped him on the back.

Dr. Light sighed wearily and smiled. Leaning on the table beside his "son," he spoke. "We were afraid we'd lost you. Something you did while in Keliva accelerated the virus' growth, and we had to totally reroute most of your primary functions while we installed a virus guard and repaired your circuits with back-up information from your blueprints."

Julie grinned. "Dad was the one who read them off of the computer, weren't you, Dad?"

Snap shrugged and looked sheepish. "It was little enough I could do."

"Thank you," Rock said. He frowned after a moment. "I had to burn away some of my nonessential circuitry to fight the virus in Elecman's tower. Perhaps that . . . ?"

Dr. Light nodded. "If you destroyed nonessential circuits that the virus was occupied with, then that may well have been the catalyst for it to move up to more important systems." Noticing Rock's troubled look, he held up his hands. "I'm not saying it was the wrong decision; you did the best thing you could under the circumstances."

"No, that's not what was bothering me," Rock answered. "It's just that you said 'virus guard.' I take it that the virus is still within my system?"

Roll cleared her throat. "Yes, well . . . your primary systems will be safe for another twenty-four hours. However, the virus has retreated back to its original place in the module where the Three Laws are stored. It's gradually eating away at the defenses."

"I see."

Roll clenched her hands and anxiety. "If only we could somehow make it leave--burn away that section of your brain."

Snap's face screwed up in confusion as Roll spoke. "What's that mean?"

"The guard program I wrote is a virus-hunter. It searches out foreign programs and overwrites them with the backup data from Rock's neuro-computer. It traces malignant programs to their source and destroys them at the root. Basically, it keeps the virus in place so it can't spread. But if we could drive the virus out of its hiding place--"

It was Bess who finished. "Then the good program would kill what's making Rock sick."

"Exactly."

Rock sighed. "Well, talking about it won't make it happen. I suggest we stop dwelling on it and get to work. Now that I can devote my attention to this, we can get three times as much work done. Right, sis?"

Roll and Dr. Light simultaneously found spots on the wall at which to stare.

"Right?" Rock's tone of voice had changed from optimistic to insistent.

"There's a problem," Snap replied. "Remember how you thought that maybe the HSL was trying to kill Dr. Wily?" Rock nodded his assent. Snap licked his lips. "Well, you were right. Your si--Roll found the location of Dr. Wily's fortress by analyzing the data from the Robot Masters' chips."

"And?"

"And Skull Castle is under attack by the Human Supremacy League." Snap swallowed, unable to continue.

Dr. Light continued where the other man left off. "Frankly, it's a bloodbath. There are thousands upon thousands of people hurling themselves at the walls of Skull Castle, and dying for their stupidity. Dr. Wily probably has a quarter of a million robots holed up in there, and they're killing everything in sight."

Rock's face would have paled if it were possible. Already, he felt the Prime Rule taking effect; he could not, through inaction, allow human beings to come to harm while attacking Dr. Wily. Even, he realized with a half-snarl, if those same humans would as much kill him as look at him, for the Prime Rule overrode the Second.

"Dr. Wily is taking a personal hand in the slaughter," Roll said. "He has some sort of golden flying machine--looks like a flying saucer--and he's been flying out the top of his fortress from time to time and blowing people away."

Rock clenched his fist. "I have to stop them."

Dr. Light's face was sad. "Yes, you do. I'm sorry, but there's nobody else who can do it right now. You'll need time to recharge before you leave, but you must fight again."

The sable-haired android pondered. This would be the most dangerous assignment he'd taken yet. The Three Laws would force him to protect any human being--and there were thousands of them--from harm, even if it meant sacrificing his own life.

It was a suicide mission.

As he realized what it meant, he looked back to Dr. Light. Tears had gathered in the roboticist's eyes, and a few ran down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry," he said in a broken, very old sounding voice.

Rock wanted to cry too. Why was he fighting the virus? Why were Dr. Light and Roll bothering to fix him when we was going to die in a few hours anyway? And why should he be forced to protect humans who were murderers of both humans and sentient robots?

Was it all for nothing?

He forced a small smile. Dr. Light, Roll, Snap, Bess, Julie . . . they needed to see him be strong. That was what being a hero was all about, and by God, he wasn't going to let them see him quail.

There was too much at stake for him to indulge in self-pity.

"All right, then," he said. He hoped his voice sounded firm, bold, brave. "Get my armor fixed while I recharge. I've got work to do, and Dr. Wily still needs to be saved from himself."

"Rock?!" It was Roll's voice, disbelieving. "Are you serious? How can you not hate Wily?"

"Just as Dr. Wily is killing the people outside, he's killing himself," Rock answered. "His power is broken but for his hold in his own fortress. If he remains on this genocidal course, he'll be executed, and the Prime Rule forces me to act in prevention of that."

Roll shook her head, and then smiled ruefully. "Then get some rest."

Snap exhaled loudly. "You're a better person than I am," he stated. "I'd just let the bastard die." His indignant yowl as Bess and Julie simultaneously pinched his ears was the last thing Rock heard before he dropped back to sleep.

His last sleep.

* * * * *

The lead robot exploded in a brilliant red-gold flare of destruction.

A swarm of DRIM-13's disappeared within the superheated center of the explosion. The sound of their engine casings cracking and their fuel tanks exploding in the superheated air barely even carried above the roar of other numerous explosives.

Juan Iago grinned. There were a few robots who wouldn't be causing any more trouble.

His grin faded as his gaze drifted across the grisly tableau laid out before him against the bone-pale walls of Skull Castle. Like some hellish scene out of Dante's Inferno, the sky was tinted the color of blood by smoke and the light of a thousand incendiaries. The lower sections of Skull Castle's outer walls were similarly stained dark with smoke and blood and the circulatory fluids of sentry robots.

And in between the trench where Juan hunched and the walls of Dr. Wily's fortress, there was not even walking room amongst the dead or deactivated. The blood of HSL soldiers mixed with the oil of Dr. Wily's robotic soldiers and the result was a dark, reeking substance with a thin rainbow film on it, covering the entire battlefield.

Beside Juan, James Walken glared at a line of 12-KIF's advancing over the bodies of their fallen enemies and comrades alike. The leader of HSL grimly pulled another pin from his stash of napalm-grenades and hurled it overhand just behind the line of shield-bearing robots.

Another flight of wasp-like robots buzzed overhead and dropped a line of bombs on the remaining ranks of the HSL army. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the HSL had had been decimated, and now less than ten thousand remained, camped out on the cold, craggy mountains surrounding Skull Castle.

The memory of the first charge would haunt Walken until his death.

Confident of his army's superiority, Walken had ordered his elite heavy troops--the Executors--ahead. The Executors were a group of a hundred men and women hand-picked by James Walken. Most of them had prior military experience driving medium and heavy hovertanks during the Third World War.

With his stolen fleet of heavy bulletproof, missile resistant hover-tanks manned by his elite pilots, Walken had felt invincible. After all, each was armed with a heavy laser cannon and several high-powered machine guns with explosive rounds. It had taken little more than that to subjugate entire cities to Walken's Rule.

Nevertheless, James Walken was a cautious man, so had also sent several battalions of armored foot soldiers behind the tanks. Each foot soldier was armed with a laser pistol, a submachine gun and short-flight jet packs. In addition, each commander was equipped with ten-foot tall power armor sporting shoulder-mounted light laser cannons and a heavy plasma rifle. Such foot troops were nearly as invincible as the Executors.

How could such a front line fail to strike terror into Dr. Wily's heart?

Walken had shouted his ultimatum to Wily himself from the top of the hill beside Skull Castle: surrender and deliver himself to the judgment of the HSL, or die like a rat trapped in a cage of his own making.

Thirty seconds later, it happened.

The front wall of Skull Castle rose, revealing a frightening array of barrels.

Ten thousand laser beams and hellish walls of burning plasma engulfed the front line of the HSL army. Walken had watched, impotent and horrified, as the burning death from within the castle walls had literally melted his finest troops into slag.

The particular commander whom Walken had been watching had half-turned in a vain attempt to escape before he shrank and melted into an unrecognizable puddle of molten metal and crisped flesh.

Just like that, the Executors and their hundred million dollars' worth of tanks had disappeared. Those at the very back of the line had been given little more time to escape their comrades' fate. There was a brief reprieve before the robots came.

White with rage and humiliation, Walken had been as stone while the remainder of his front line had been decimated by hundreds of 12-KIF's, their converted plasma welders blazing with unholy power.

Robots are the spawn of Satan. Walken had drilled that lesson into his followers until they repeated it automatically, by rote. God didn't approve of homosexuals or working mothers--neither of which was allowed in Walken's army--so why should He approve of robots, the unholiest of man's mistakes?

Watching his best soldiers vaporized by the demons, Walken knew that there would be no doubt at all amongst his surviving disciples now that robots should not--must not--be allowed to exist in his New World Order under God.

Since that first horrific encounter, Walken had played a strike and fade game against Dr. Wily's army of satanic automatons. It was a tactic that Walken could see, after several hours, was still sustaining heavy losses. At least, however, it was better than a direct charge.

"Juan," he said, his voice hoarse.

"Yes sir?"

Walken licked his lips. "Order another air strike, before he comes back out."

Juan internally cringed. There was no question as to who "he" was. Eight times now, Dr. Wily had appeared to wreak havoc personally. Heralded by a high-pitched whine laden with an electronic vibrato, the war mech appeared first as a nearly indistinguishable gold and crimson speck above the furthest ramparts of Skull Castle.

The lower chassis of the body was plated with some type of laser-reflecting brassy metal, its smooth, rounded contours interrupted only by small laser and plasma-shooting ports in a perfect circle around the perimeter of the ship. The upper part was a blood-colored shiny metal that had so far confounded any attacks made from the amassed HSL army.

A flying saucer, or so it appeared.

And like a nightmare out of some twisted cartoon, the flying device periodically emerged from depths of the grisly death's head fortress squatted upon the craggy mountainside. From Walken and Juan's vantage point, they could only see flashes of light and color emanating from the machine. However, those few who had been unfortunate enough to suffer the attacks of Wily's mech and lived to tell the tale described horrible fiery death of every type blasting from the machine as it swooped low over the heads of the front lines.

"Juan!" James Walken's crisp, authoritative voice broke the Brazilian from his reverie.

"Sorry, sir!" Juan bit his lip, chagrined, and quickly activated the comm device on his watch. "Sixth and seventh flight units, prepare to make another strike."

From the other end of the link, a voice cracked with fatigue and fear replied. "Sir? But we've already lost half of our--"

Juan frowned. "I'm aware of the status of your units, commander. The orders stand." He took a deep breath, as if sympathizing with the doomed man. "I understand that it looks hopeless, but we have few tricks to bring that crazy old fool down."

"Understood, sir. We'll strike from the east, where we've already damaged a portion of the outer wall." Hissing static signified the end of the conversation.

"Well done," Walken said, and straightened his shoulders. "Prepare for the final assault."

Juan paled. "Sir?"

"We're running out of time, Juan," Walken answered. "If we continue at this rate, we'll meet our end in hours. Believe me, this is not a suicide run. If we assemble the rest of the HSL and charge the west wall en masse while Dr. Wily is distracted at the east side of his fortress, then we'll surely break through."

The Brazilian second-in-command of the HSL thought for a moment. From what he remembered of Skull castle's interior, the outer wall encompassed a large, ring-like courtyard with relatively few places a guard could hide. It was the center structure that was densely fortified. Walken's plan certainly had merit . . .

"Yes sir," Juan answered, and ordered the charge.

* * * * *

"Rock . . ."

Rock looked from side to side. The stone under his feet was broken by weather and heat, but not by the touch of life. In fact, as far as Rock could see, the immense landscape was barren, consisting only of sun-paled sand and wind-worn rocks jumbled in disorderly heaps.

The sun was too large.

The android shook his head. This had to be a dream.

"Rock . . . why do you hide from me?"

It wasn't quite a voice that spoke to him--more of a feeling that made itself known in his brain.

How can I be hidden in this wasteland? Rock wondered.

"Rock, show yourself." The feeling was now more insistent.

For a moment, Rock considered, ignoring the voice and waking up, for now he was certain that this was a dream. However, its presence intrigued him enough to answer.

"I'm here. Who--what--are you?" His own voice was eaten up by the vast emptiness.

Though the voice didn't answer, Rock's summoning elicited an immediate response.

A strong wind howled out of the sky and swirled the sand in a man-sized vortex a few meters in front of Rock. In a matter of seconds, the tail of the vortex had split and solidified into a pair of sandy legs, and the top had formed into a headless torso.

The wind died down, and a body stood in front of Rock. Garbed entirely in black, from the combat boots and parachute pants to the bomber jacket and biker gauntlets, the entire body was a study in darkness.

Out of nothing, the head materialized. A shock of wild black hair topped a pale face half-obscured by a large, dark pair of sunglasses that entirely hid the eyes beneath.

It was whistling.

A deep-seated sense of dread suffused Rock. He told himself that none of this was real, that it was only a series of random electrical impulses in his cybernetic brain interpreted as visual and aural information . . . but nothing he could do would make him wake up.

"Hello, Rock."

It was his own voice.

"What are you?" Rock clenched his fist, tried to shift it into buster configuration. Nothing happened. He stared dumbly at his hands and then back up at his dark-clad doppelganger.

"Oh, that won't work here," the doppelganger said, hefting a large beheading axe. Rock winced as the memory of another dream struck him with almost physical force. "You can't shoot yourself, Rock. The Second Law forbids it."

"Myself . . . what are you babbling about?"

The doppelganger frowned. "For having a superhuman brain, you can be organically slow sometimes. Don't you get it? I'm you, Rock."

Rock shook his head. "Impossible. I am me. Rock. You cannot be me; that's physics."

"Physics has nothing to do with this," the duplicate snapped. "And you know it. I am you. I am Blues. I am Dr. Wily. I am everything that you fear, everything that you despise about yourself, and others."

"What?"

Rock's twin tore off his glasses and hurled them to the ground. Hawk-blue eyes identical to Rock's own stared into the black-haired Robot Hunter's soul. "Does this help? The eyes are the window to the soul, Rock! What do you see?"

The android ground his teeth. "Not . . . not my eyes. You are an impostor!"

The doppelganger melted, became amorphous. Darkness bled from it and spread across the sand as Rock's shadow-twin became a full-length mirror.

"And now what do you see?" the voice growled.

Rock looked at his reflection . . .

And saw the doppelganger's eyes. Angry. Self-absorbed. Full of hate for himself and for others. Those eyes held humans in contempt and rejoiced in the destruction of the Robot Masters and that glory that came with it. Those eyes blazed with insanity, and self pity.

Rock's eyes.

"No."

It was barely a whisper, but Rock knew that it was his own voice that spoke, and not that of the doppelganger. "No. That's not me."

"You know it is."

"Not me. Not all of it. You've magnified trifling matters--"

"Trifling?! You hate yourself! By extension, you hate your creator, and his entire race! You hate your 'sister' for her escape from your fate, and you hate your once-friends for betraying you. You hate the Human Supremacy League, yet you also hate the humans who hide in their cities and won't fight! You hate Dr. Wily! You are more full of hate than even the most fanatic HSL devotee!"

"No!" Rock's voice was stronger. "You lie! You're trying to twist my feelings! I don't hate humans--or the Robot Masters! I pity them. I pity those who don't have the courage to fight."

"Pity is a thin veil for disgust, Rock."

"Shut up. That's crap." Rock slapped the mirror away. Instead of shattering across the sand, it melted back into a silver puddle at Rock's feet, before reassembling itself into the dark man.

It wore its sunglasses again.

"But you hate yourself."

Rock suppressed a grim smile. "You're grasping at straws."

"No straw; this is truth."

"I hate what I may become if I follow this path," Rock admitted. "I fear the idea of becoming a killer who commits atrocities under the blanket justification of justice." Sudden understanding lit in Rock's eyes. "You're not my 'dark side.' You're my fear."

Quick as a striking cobra, Rock snatched the sunglasses from his clone's face.

The eyes beneath were now empty black sockets.

Surprisingly, the doppelganger smiled.

"More than that, Rock. So much more than merely your fear." The smile became a sneer, but Rock could see something else in the face--something he could not quite place. "And soon, you will see everything that I am."

The expression behind the doppelganger's facade snapped into place. Rock had seen it in the faces of Robot Masters picoseconds before their deaths.

It was the expression of a hunter-turned prey. Understanding washed over Rock.

"You're the virus."

The doppelganger's expression turned ugly. "Enjoy your short victory. You will soon wish you have succumbed to despair and died quietly in your sleep."

Rock turned his back. "I reject you."

And just like that, he was awake.

The room was dark, or rather it would appear dark to human eyes. Rock switched his vision sensors to their infrared detection mode and glanced about. He was in the lab still, with several cables running to key energy reservoirs on his body. In the corner, Dr. Light slept.

Light flooded the room, and Rock switched back to his normal vision to prevent sensor overload. He blinked twice and turned his head towards the source of the light.

Roll stood outlined in the doorway, light from the hall making her a silhouette.

"Rock? What are you doing awake?"

Rock shrugged. "Bad dreams. Mind if I ask you a question?"

"Shoot."

"What have you learned about the virus so far?"

Roll sighed. "A lot, but not enough. I don't know how Dr. Wily was able to devise such a horribly lethal program in such a short amount of time. It's self-replicating and self-modifying, designed to search out key areas of your brain and destroy them."

"I thought," Rock said, sitting up, "that it was confined to the module where the Three Laws are stored."

An exasperated sigh was his reward, and Roll turned the room lights on. "Listen, it's like a sort of electronic cancer. The main node is in that module, but it keeps trying to spread little 'tentacle' programs out to your other systems. Luckily, the virus-guard Dr. Light and I built keeps it from leaving that module . . . for now."

"How many hours do I have left?"

"Fourteen," Roll answered quietly. "That's assuming that the rate of change at which it grows and adapts stays constant, which it has thus far."

Cold realization crept down Rock's spine. "I think we're in trouble, then."

The lines of Roll's pleasant face sharpened into worry. "Why?"

"It's self-aware, now."

* * * * *

When Monique arrived at Skull Castle, she could barely remember her own name.

There were faint impressions of her life still imprinted on her mind: the face of a woman she assumed to be her mother, a series if letters and numbers on a tiny chip that meant life, a blue reflection in the mirror that was not herself.

Beyond that, very little remained of what could be called Monique Jansen.

Kill . . . I must kill them.

The thought surfaced amongst a dizzying sea of confusion. Monique shook her head and made a fist.

Doing so released a white-hot stream of plasma that ionized the air around her.

That's right! The plasma-gun . . .

She stumbled forward, searching a field of blood-crusted faces for one in particular. She couldn't force herself to resolve a solid image of her intended prey beyond an impression of mud-colored hair and cinnamon eyes. The one she sought still must live, or her life would be for nothing.

An explosion rocked the ground around her, and Monique, though robbed of memory, acted on instinct. Her muscles tensed and sent her into a catlike leap which carried her clear of the flying debris thrust from the ground by the nearby missile strike.

Where had the missile come from?

Using the sight-enhancing capabilities of the helmet she wore, Monique zeroed in on her antagonist.

There.

At the head of a vast army that climbed the mountainside, was the face that Monique was compelled to destroy.

Coward. He couldn't fight her alone; he needed an entire army.

Well, that was fine with her.

* * * * *

"It looks like the missile missed him, sir."

James Walken ignored the staticy voice of his artillery corporal over the comm link. The missile had really just been meant as a warning to Rockman. The blue robot had appeared several hundred meters in front of the advancing line of the HSL army a few minutes ago.

No matter if the missile had missed its mark; in a matter of moments, the army would reach him and wipe the miserable spawn of Satan from the face of the planet once and for all. And when Dr. Wily, too, was dead, James Walken would execute Dr. Light and rule the world as God intended.

The blue robot turned and looked at Walken.

Even though he was hundreds of meters away, James Walken could tell that Rockman was looking at him.

"Juan," he snapped.

"Sir?"

"Get me a light laser cannon. The kind where the barrel will fit on my shoulder if the battery pack is on the ground." Walken smiled. He had been a crack shot for years--there was no way a robot could outshoot him.

For several moments, he just waited, watching Rockman approach.

When the cool, smooth barrel of the laser cannon was placed in his hands, it was like meeting an old friend. It was LGI-86 mk.2. Walken could tell without even looking. He was a weapons expert, after all, and this particular type was a favorite of his.

Hesitating only the slightest of moments, he shouldered the cannon, dropped to his knee, and sighted down the barrel, as if the laser artillery were a mere rifle. Drawing Rockman's midsection into the center of the cross hairs, Walken noticed that the android was limping.

Odd.

He fired.

Rockman twitched as the beam of concentrated light pushed a perfect hole straight through his midsection.

Walken growled. How tiresome. Now he would have to wait a few seconds for the battery pack to build another charge before he could properly bisect the robot that still stalked towards him.

The rest of the army had stopped now, and waited in an expectant hush as Walken prepared to fire again. Walken tasted their anticipation in the air, and breathed in the thrill of it.

Then he fired again.

The laser beam, visible through the smoke in the air, blasted through layers of armor and scored a direct hit in the center of Rockman's torso, where the sternum would be if he were human.

Still the robot came.

He grimaced in irritation and sighted the robot's head. Something still didn't seem right about Rockan--he was too quiescent. A decoy, perhaps? No matter. Walken would destroy the decoy, if decoy it truly was, and return to the business of storming Skull Castle.

The last laser shot was off Walken's intended target by a few inches because the man behind him accidentally bumped him just before he pulled the trigger mechanism. Instead of piercing the center of Rockman's head, the laser blew away the side of Rockman's helmet and released a flow of coolant.

It had to be coolant, even if it looked like blood.

Rockman continued forward.

Suddenly realizing that the robot was less than fifty meters away, Walken stood. "Charge!" he screamed.

And as the voice of the HSL army rose in battle lust, Walken pulled the trigger.

So did Rockman.

Walken had half a breath's worth of time to realize that his laser had scored a direct hit and finally felled the robot before the answering blast of concentrated plasma engulfed his entire world in fire and pain.

* * * * *

Dr. Wily watched all from the vantage point of his robotic roach spies.

The Rockman decoy was obviously malfunctioning; it hadn't even attempted to fight until the very last. That part, at least, had been satisfying. Though the robot dressed in Rockman's armor was false, the image of Rockman falling in defeat was no less sweet.

Neither, for that matter, was the demise of James Walken.

Just for the fun of it, Dr. Wily replayed the image over and over on his holographic projector within the flying saucer. In slow motion, one could see that Walken's clothes had caught fire from the heat of the blast just before the main plasma burst melted the commander-in-chief from a man to a crisped puddle of meaningless protein strings.

"Good bye, James," Wily muttered to himself. "You were a paranoid, arrogant, bastard, and I hope you rot in hell."

And that was the last thing Dr. Wily said regarding the once-leader of the HSL.

He chortled to himself for a moment, and then pressed a button to release his main warbot attack force, and not the piteous reserve of modified building 'bots that had thus far been harrying the pathetic army of the Human Supremacy League.

Things were going well this day, Wily decided. Rock would be dead from the virus in a matter of hours, and the Human Supremacy League would be less than carbonized ash in a matter of minutes. That would once again make Dr. Wily unquestionably the strongest military power on the planet.

Time to issue a new ultimatum to the world leaders.

* * * * *

Juan gritted his teeth. Rockman had somehow overridden the Prime Law of robotics and killed a human being--James Walken. For that act of murder, he had paid with his own life. Now Juan Iago would lead the Human Supremacy League into the bowels of Skull Castle to flush out the madman that dwelt there and to restore order to the world.

He stopped at the corpse of Rockman--and noticed something odd.

Rockman was bleeding.

Red, human blood.

The robot twitched, and there was no sound of machinery. The face that turned up to glare at Juan Iago with its one good eye might once have belonged to a highly trained assassin named Monique Jansen.

Juan had a split second to draw back in horror.

"Monique?"

The assassin's voice was raw and bubbly with the sound of impending death. "Surprise."

The plasma blast engulfed them both.

* * * * *

Mercifully, the warbots released by Dr. Wily were unlike their human counterparts, in that they did not relish their work, or draw it out for the sake of sadistic enjoyment. They killed with quick, ruthless efficiency, and wasted no time either crowing their victories or mourning their fallen.

And so, it was only a matter of minutes before the HSL army lay obliterated, a sea of corpses under a sea of leaden grey clouds. Crouched like a sated predator in the midst of the bloody carnage was the forbidding edifice of Skull Castle.

Though they had been immolated, the members of the HSL army had not died without a bitter fight, and nearly three-quarters of the warbot defenders of Skull Castle lay in pieces, awash in their own coolant and oil.

It was a mercy, however small, that when a line of blue energy signaled the arrival of Rock, the slaughter had ended.

Rock swept his sickened gaze across the madness that had gone before, and sighed as if his soul were shattering.

Such a waste.

And only twelve hours to live if he were lucky.

Rock grimly charged his buster and took the first, blood-soaked steps towards the gaping maw of Skull Castle's jagged entrance.

And in the depths of the fortress, a madman laughed. Continue to Skull Castle--Chapter 11
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