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"Throughout the history of warfare, the role of castles and fortresses has been a mighty presence. From medieval castles like Beaumaris and Caerphilly to the spring-mounted, mountain encased installation at Cheyenne Mountain in America, fortresses have always been a symbol of man's strength during war. One fortress, however, deserves special mention. Skull Castle, the stronghold of the megalomniac Dr. William Wily--has been built and re-built so many times as to be the stuff of legend. Though each location and incarnation of Skull Castle has been formidable, few were as lethal as the original, perched in the highlands of Chile and guarded by ten thousand robotic warriors and Robot Masters . . . "
--excerpt from the official training guide of Warfare and Irregular-Hunting Tactics of the 17th Unit, edited by Dr. Alan Cain, historian and archaeologist

Chapter 11

Skull Castle

Ten thousand pounds of stone, steel, free-floating hover-engines and armor shifted.

One single, blazing crystal sent a shaft of ruby-colored light across the room as the guardian glanced back and forth, searching for any difference in the room's mathematically perfect shape. The chamber was a giant, uninterrupted cube, with a single entrance and a single exit.

The entrance was in the form of a large, rectangular door that could be opened by means of a switch on either side of the wall. On the outside was the maze-like first ring of Skull Castle that could be reached through the courtyard. If the door were opened, it would retract into the ceiling, opening a clear avenue of fire for the guardian.

Behind the guardian was a tiny fire escape, much too small for the robot's own massive frame to fit through. One would have to be human sized to fit through such a small hole. That led to the chasm-like second ring. The guardian had only ever seen the second ring once, on his way out to the first ring. It was a vaguely-recalled collection of images--mostly of ladders, sheer walls and deep pits into the bowels of the earth.

The small fire escape behind the guardian was the only way, unless one could fly, to reach the second ring.

And to reach that fire escape, one would have to destroy Polyphemus, the cyclops.

Dr. Wily had named him after the greatest of the cyclops because he was Dr. Wily's greatest creation. At least, that was what Dr. Wily had told him. Polyphemus had intelligence of a type, though it could be compared to that of a small bird--little attention span, single minded with only a short-term memory. Also, Polyphemus liked to watch things move.

He knew that if he tripped a certain circuit path, then something very bright would come out of his single eye, and whatever he was looking at would be destroyed. That was his secondary mode of defense. His primary mode was to smash things with his giant, rock-hard fists.

Polyphemus liked smashing things. It made a loud sound, and when he was done smashing, he had fun counting the pieces of his target. The last one had been a small, yellow thing that scurried back and forth.

Had Polyphemus possessed a greater understanding of his surroundings, he might have known that the scurrying yellow thing was a metool that had suffered a circuit overload, and wandered away from its assigned area.

However, Polyphemus only knew that it was a little moving thing, and that he liked to smash little moving things. It had broken into seventy-eight pieces.

The one exception to his limited intellectual capacity was Dr. Wily's standing order: guard the first ring. The directive had been hard-coded into Polyphemus' brain so that it was a constant burning reminder of his duty to his creator. Even while recharging, the order was foremost in his thoughts.

So Polyphemus would guard this entrance until he was told to do otherwise.

In the meantime, to amuse himself, he divided into a hundred pieces and sent each piece jetting across the room until he had re-formed as a stone, one-eyed giant several meters away. It was his favorite diversion.

Far away, something rumbled, and Polyphemus felt an unfamiliar circuit path in his brain begin to coarse with electrons. Another message had been coded into him at his creation, but he had been unaware of its existence; it had never been relayed before.

The message, as Polyphemus understood it, was more or less: First ring has been breached. Switch to Guardian mode.

Guardian mode, as Polyphemus knew, meant that he would be required to keep a constant vigil, watching for any sort of attacker. He would not be allowed to recharge or make contact with his creator, for fear of giving his position away to an enemy.

The sound of distant explosions underscored the unthinkable: Skull Fortress had indeed been invaded, and now Polyphemus would need to fight those who wished his master harm.

* * * * *

Kelly ran.

As a courier for the HSL, she had memorized the passageways of Skull Castle fairly early on. He she drawn on paper her knowledge of Skull Castle's layout, the result would have been a nightmarish tangle of passages, switch-backs, dead-ends and secret tunnels. It was in one of the secret tunnels that Kelly now ran.

Darkness. Nothing but horrible, overbearing darkness in this world of machines. Kelly would give anything for a flashlight right now. Why had all the lights gone out? What the hell was going on?

She had never received word from the HSL high command to evacuate Skull Castle, and so it was a complete surprise to Kelly when she had awakened from her napping place this morning and found after a brief search that she was apparently the only human being left in the entire fortress.

There had been sounds of fighting outside for nearly the entire day; surely it was between the madman Dr. Wily and the army of the HSL. Kelly had been sick with fear and worry. What was she doing still inside Skull Castle? If the fight was going on out there, why hadn't she been recalled to her unit? And if Dr. Wily had declared war upon the HSL, how long would it be before she herself was hunted down by guardbots and eliminated?

Heart pounding with each panicked step, Kelly continued down the passageway. She had to find her way out. She had to! Every echo of her footsteps made her jump; visions of sentry robots spattered with human blood raced through her mind.

There! A light at the end of the passageway! Had it been a glint of sunlight, or the operating lights of one of Skull Castle's many robotic guardians? Damn this place! Kelly was sure she had memorized the fortress's layout as far as the Second Ring. How could she be getting lost now?

It's just my nerves, she told herself, and kept running. Any moment now, she would catch another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, and then she would be saved.

A deafening roar that suffused the entire corridor made Kelly shriek and cover her ears. As if some angry beast from the bowels of the earth had opened its gaping maw and let loose a cry that echoed the wails of hell's tortured souls, the very foundation of the castle shook with the intense, piercing sound.

It was, Kelly realized after a moment, the sound of all of Skull Castle's guns and laser ports firing simultaneously. So that was why all the lights had gone off! Dr. Wily must have been saving power for this strike for hours now.

Trapped within the heart of the chaos, Kelly pressed her hands as hard as she could over her ears and made herself run further.

Away. Just get away from that damned noise!

As suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. After several minutes, Kelly slowly lowered her hands from her ears and took a deep breath. After a moment, she realized that she had unconsciously squeezed her eyes shut during the noisy outburst. Relaxing her furrowed brow and opening her eyes, she gasped.

There, in front of her, was hope. It appeared as if a small hole had been blasted in the wall of the passageway, and sunlight pooled on the ground before it. Allowing herself a smile, she dashed towards her salvation.

Abruptly, the light was blocked out by the silhouette of a human in armor.

Kelly pulled up short. That wasn't any kind of armor she'd seen on soldiers of the HSL. Had Skull Castle been discovered by U.N. troops? That was all she needed. The HSL had been denounced for hate crimes and war crimes; any member of the HSL caught by the U.N. would face grave charges and probably life in prison.

The figure spoke, but it wasn't in English. Kelly flinched back at the sound of the strange words.

"Oi, anata! Daijoubu desu ka?"

"I-I don't understand," Kelly answered, hoping that the strange man was more interested in killing robots than arresting HSL collaborators.

"Ah, an American." The man spoke English with little noticeable accent. "I said, are you okay? You've got to get out of here as fast as you can."

Kelly sighed with relief and began to move towards the exit once more. "Oh, good, you speak English! Listen, I need help. I've been trapped in here for hours, and there's been no light or any way to get out. I think there was a battle outside--"

"Slaughter is more like it," the man answered. Was that sorrow in his voice? "If you knew anybody in the HSL, I would advise you try to keep your eyes up as you leave."

An icy spear lanced through Kelly's chest. "What do you mean? Did they lose?"

"Horribly. The only living human beings here now are you and, I imagine, Dr. Wily." The man shook his head. "This is madness." The man stepped out of the way so that Kelly could exit the tunnel.

Sunlight glinted off the burnished midnight blue helmet and armor the man wore. Splashed with pale blue on his arms, legs and torso, the man was a study in sky tones. Kelly eyed him curiously. "Where are you from? The U.N.?"

"Not quite," the man answered. Unsure of what to make of the cryptic response, Kelly turned her attention to her surroundings. She had apparently been wandering in one of the secret passages in the outer wall of Skull Castle. To her left lay the massive courtyard and then the fortress proper. The skull-shaped edifice was half obscured by smoke hazed red with the early sunset.

To her right was the rest of the outer wall. Several meters before her was the main gate, through which lay escape. Kelly looked back to her rescuer. "I have to escape. Are there any vehicles left back there?"

"I don't know," the man answered. He suddenly gasped and pressed a hand to his forehead. "Oh, not now!" he growled. After a few moments or heavy breathing, his pain seemed to subside. He turned to Kelly. "Listen. Just concentrate on escape. I'll be keeping the defense forces around Skull Castle busy, okay?"

Kelly snorted. "By yourself? Do you want to die?"

The man looked like he would cry. "No. No, I don't want to die. Now please, just get out of here while you still can."

"Who are you?"

The man shook his head. "Haven't you guessed? I'm you're sworn enemy--the symbol of everything the HSL hates. Now get going!"

Kelly stumbled a step backwards. "Y-you're . . . Rockman?!"

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, too," he muttered. "Please, leave this place--it's nothing but a slaughter house."

Torn between feelings of confusion, anger, and fear, Kelly turned and ran.

* * * * *

Twelve hours.

Rock gritted his teeth. "I have twelve hours to live--if I'm exceptionally lucky. And I have to spend it here in this madman's fortress."

And you're not exceptionally lucky today, Rock. Rock recognized the cold edge to the inner voice that told him that the virus was speaking to him directly.

"Shut up. I didn't ask your opinion." The ugly sensation of the virus' brutal intentions was his only reply. Rock shook his head in disgust and began his approach; no sense in wasting time talking to the virus if he had less than half a day to live and defeat Dr. Wily.

So.

The courtyard was a large circular shape, with the center dominated by the cancerous shape of Skull Castle. Between himself and the closest noticeable entrance were several large bunkers and other protrusions from the earth with less immediately obvious purpose.

"Time to get to work," the android muttered.

As he approached the first bunker, he was faced with his first adversary: a LighTech trash compacting robot. Leaping forward on its single "foot," the robot had obviously spotted Rock, and intended to make a quick finish of the robot-hunter.

Rock rolled sideways as the robot drew closer and loosed a spray of several plasma bursts that, while they had no immediate effect upon the robot's operating abilities, wee able to overload its photoreceptor long enough for Rock to run past it and make his escape behind the bunker.

And there stood another one.

Well, did you expect that this would be easy? the virus chortled.

Rock ground his teeth and charged the second robot. Sudden inspiration struck him, and he switched his buster's weapon to Ice Slasher. A second before he fired, he shifted the components of the buster inside so that, instead of a lance of ice blasting out, a sub-arctic cloud sprayed out of his plasma buster and surrounded the robot.

The armored plating of the robot rimed over with frost and turned pale beneath a thin sheet of ice. It held still for a moment before beginning to lower its body in preparation for its next bound--the one that would inevitably crush Rock.

For a moment, Rock was afraid his gamble hadn't paid off.

Then, as the body of the robot lifted back up off the hydraulic leg, a piercing snap resounded through the courtyard. Brittled by the intense cold, the servomotors inside the robot's motion mechanism had been shattered by their own movement. Rock dashed to the side as the top of the trash compacting robot snapped off its supports and fell to the ground with a gargantuan crash, leaving only the frozen hydraulic leg standing upright..

The next trash compacting 'bot was almost as easily dealt with, and Rock began smiled grimly. He could only hope that the rest of the citadel was as easily cleared of resistance. As the last of the trash compacting robots thundered to the ground, Rock turned towards the entrance.

Abruptly, a huge block of stone, easily twice Rock's height, fell from within the ceiling of the fortress to block the entrance. Rock swore and switched his Ice Slasher off. The particular circuit group that supplied power to the matter synth module for the Ice Slasher was almost exhausted anyway.

"No way around it, I suppose," he sighed.

He studied the obstacle. There was barely enough space around the edges of the block for him to fit his fingers behind. As for weight, a quick calculation revealed that it had a 98% probability of weighing at last 1,500 pounds.

The raven-haired android shook his head. Although Dr. Light and Roll had modified his basic skeletal structure to give him for strength after his fight with Gutsman, he couldn't be sure of moving this boulder with no help.

Experimentally, he fitted his fingers into the slots on the sides of the rock and gripped. So far, so good. Gritting his teeth, he set his feet and lifted.

The boulder move a few inches. Rock shook his head in disgust and routed more power to his main arm and leg motor modules. He had to get this thing out of the way. Now operating at 10% above his normally specified parameters for engine strength, Rock tried again.

The boulder moved a few feet, but not nearly enough for Rock to squeeze by yet.

"Move, you bastard!" Heedless of the consequences, Rock pushed his operating power to 155% percent and dug his fingers into the rock. With a metallic grunt, he hefted the boulder and hurled it several meters to the side.

Immediately, he was sorry he'd done it. Not only was his main spinal spring sending a slew of warning messages to him, but he also had to deal with what lay inside.

Fire.

Walls of fire roared up from the ground, obscuring his view of the rest of the entrance. As soon as one blazing curtain of flame guttered and died down, anther blasted up to take its place. Rock frowned and contemplated. It would be a fairly simple matter to switch to infrared vision and locate the power source for each wall of flame. From there, he could use his Ice Slasher to overload the heat sinks from which the fire walls sprang--at least temporarily.

To make matters more difficult, the fire walls were each situated on a large stair-step, meaning Rock would have to worry about leaping up and steadying himself each time he had completed the process.

Finding no other course of action, Rock activated his Ice Slasher and located the first of the fire-walls' energy sources. Rock hissed. This was going to be more complicated than he'd thought. The flame-throwers that made up the wall were linked on one circuit so that they'd all fire at the same time. However, they each had a separate circuit to their power source, so that if one were to burn out, the rest could still go.

If he could use his Ice Slasher to spray a cloud of sub-freezing material over all of the release valves, then the fire wall would be temporarily disabled. However, it would require perfect timing. Since his Ice Slasher used liquid nitrogen, it was extremely cold. Such cold would almost certainly damage the flame throwers. However, since liquid nitrogen was extremely flammable, he'd need to spray the cloud when the flames had all died down--if he erred by a picosecond, he would risk obliterating himself.

And that would be a shame, the virus said nastily.

Rock felt doubt grip him. Could the virus manage to disrupt his operation for even that tiny amount of time? If so, then his plan would be not only risky, but openly suicidal. Rock's brow furrowed. No. The virus couldn't have gotten free so quickly, or Rock himself would already be dead. The virus-hunter installed by Roll and Dr. Light would continue to do its job for at least a few hours more.

Better be sure, the virus laughed.

"Will you shut up!" Rock snapped.

He chose to observe the pattern of the fire-wall's diminishing and renewal for caution's sake. Thankfully, they seemed to work on a "dumb" circuit that merely activated itself every few seconds. If the timer had been set on a random cycle, that could have caused real problems.

One, two, three . . .

Now!

Liquid nitrogen blasted across the flame throwers' release valves in an icy wave. Rock leaped across the line of quiescent tubes and repeated the process for the next two flame curtains. Just as he had crossed the third and final one, the first roared back to life. Rock hastily grabbed hold of the ladder situated in front of him and climbed to the second level and--he hoped--to a less dangerous environment than this.

* * * * *

Docman waited.

Several hours ago, Dr. Wily had ordered him to the Second Ring, where Docman now stood as Guardian. He understood that his was the last real position of defense against any intruders. After all, any who could somehow penetrate Skull Castle and defeat the one-eyed Guardian of the First Ring would also have to cross the chasm-like Second Ring, fighting a swarm of sentry 'bots and at least two Robot Masters in order to reach Docman's position.

Behind Docman lay the Third Ring, or, more precisely, a small drainage tunnel barely large enough for Docman to fit through in a pinch. The hatch led to the extensive coolant-drainage system that lay beneath Skull Castle. Though not from experience, Docman knew that if one were to follow the maze-like drainage system, he would either find himself back outside, or in the reservoir where lay the half-completed robot assigned to guard it.

Directly below that was Dr. Wily's inner sanctum, where Docman himself had been built, and Dr. Wily now waited inside his lethal war mech.

Docman shifted. It was the waiting that truly bothered him. Lacking the creativity to entertain himself, but unable to just switch to recharge mode now that his Guardian Mode had been activated, he had nothing to do except pace his chamber and wait. Either he would fight the intruders, or he would be taken off of Guardian Mode.

He clasped his hands and began to contemplate which holographic shield he should project when the HSL finally reached him. Searching his memory banks to determine what shape would strike the most fear into their hearts, he finally settled upon a choice.

When the door opened and his adversaries dropped into his chamber, Docman would wear the guise of the robot they hated more than any other: Rockman.

* * * * *

Rock took a deep breath and glared for the fifth time at the shaft.

Upon reaching the second story of Skull Castle, Rock had been confronted with a few light surveillance robots and a seemingly endless supply of Sharksfang missiles before being forced to climb a ladder back down to the first floor of the interior of Skull Castle.

That had been easily as difficult as deactivating the flame-walls. The first floor was entirely lined with razor-sharp titanium spikes, each of which coursed with lethal electrical current. Rock had sworn in frustration when he had realized that the only way to cross the vast field of spikes was to ride on the erratic cargo-transport robots which intermittently hovered between one side and the other.

He had thought that the worst of it was over after jumping from robot to robot, desperately trying to avoid death by electrocution on the spikes below. However, after finally crossing the giant room of spikes and climbing the long ladder up to the second floor again, he had been confronted with this damned shaft.

It was a tubular shaft at least two stories tall with walls that were composed of perfectly smooth, solid steel. As Rock had found, to his bitter frustration, there was no way to get a grip of any kind on the walls for climbing.

Of course, he would have to use his Magnet Beam to try to build some sort of platform on which he could climb. However, the sheer amount of energy and time he would need to expend in order to climb the shaft would be ridiculous. So far, he had already spent an hour just trying to get this far. The prospect of another hour merely climbing the shaft galled him.

Well, no help for it. He activated his Magnet Beam and created a shimmering half-translucent platform for himself in the air at about eye level. Leaping to that, he calculated how far he could easily jump with the half-existent platform as his base and produced another.

It was slow going, and for the better part of an hour, Rock made his way in a spiral pattern up the shaft, nearly exhausting his special weapons' energy reservoir in his repeated use of the Magnet Beam. However, he finally climbed out the top of the shaft and found himself in a long corridor.

From here, he could see that there was a large push button to open the door at the end of the corridor. It seemed to be the same type double-reinforced steel door that descended from the ceiling that he had seen before while fighting Robot Masters.

Rock gritted his teeth. Prior experience had taught him that anything behind such a door was never good news. Opting to recharge for a few moments, Rock sat cross-legged and closed his eyes.

Not smart.

Rock had only a moment to clench his jaw tighter before the virus began its attack.

This time was different from prior attacks. Rock felt first one finger twitch, and then another. Soon, his hands were clasping and relaxing by themselves, without his command. He tried to make them stop, but the circuitry didn't respond to his commands.

Now this is fun.

Rock suppressed the urge to growl. Instead, he cut off all power to his limbs and then re-routed the power through his auxiliary power core--where the virus hunter program was stored--before sending it to its sundry destinations.

Oh! So, it's to be a game of logic, is it? Rock could almost hear a voice in his head giggling. Very well, then.

So began half an hour of nightmarish logic problems for Rock. Just as soon as he'd found a new way to re-route power through his system, the virus would send out a tentacle program that would corrupt another circuit path.

Finally, it stopped. Rock took a deep breath, unsure of what had caused the attack to subside. Had he beaten the virus back for now? Certainly, there were no taunts for the moment. Deciding not to press his luck, Rock stood.

He had lost a precious half an hour to the virus this time. Now he would have to hurry through the rest of the castle. As if I've been dragging my feet until now, he thought grimly. His thoughts drifted to the woman he'd saved as he entered Skull Castle.

"Do you want to die?" Her words echoed in his mind as he approached the door.

God, no. I don't want to die. Why does it have to be this way? He reached forward to press the button that would open the door. What's the meaning of my existence if all I'm destined for is suffering and death, or to inflict the same upon others?

Rock stopped his hand and stared at it for a moment.

How many robots have I destroyed with this hand? A hundred? A thousand? I've killed six of my friends and countless robots I didn't even know. How many more will I have to destroy today before I, too, die? Sadness welled up behind his hawk-blue eyes.

He pressed the button.

Steam hissed from the edges of the door as it receded into the ceiling. Rock took a step into the room, buster ready. Immediately, the door slammed down behind him. Unsurprised, Rock searched for his enemy.

The room seemed to be empty. Several stone protrusions stuck out from the otherwise mathematically perfect shaped of the cube-room. Rock walked to the center of the room and looked to the ceiling. Perhaps this room wasn't guarded.

Taking heart in the idea, Rock began to look for another exit.

Out of nowhere, something large bashed him in the back of the head. Rock felt himself slammed to the floor, sensors screaming with pain signals. Rock could feel coolant seeping down the back of his neck from under his helmet. He raised his head in time to see a child-sized boulder fly at him.

Rolling to the side, Rock fired a few short bursts of plasma at the boulder--with no effect.

Another boulder flew at him, and another. Hard-pressed to avoid the sideways bombardment, it took Rock a moment to realize that all the rocks were flying to the same place. He twisted his torso to get a view of the boulders' landing place, and gasped.

In the corner of the huge room was a giant made of stone, easily four times Rock's own size. Though it had no head on its huge torso, there was a large red focus crystal "eye" near the top of its rounded torso. Rock ducked as another boulder flew from the wall behind him and secured itself to a hole in the giant's leg.

"God, Wily," Rock breathed. This was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. "This is--this is genius!"

But mad genius, he reminded himself. Then, all other thoughts were brushed aside as he charged his buster again and prepared to fight once more for his life.

The giant rumbled a step towards Rock and smashed down with frighteningly fast, massive fists. Rock dodged to the side and peppered the giant stone body with plasma bursts. Although small sections of stone broke away from the massive armored structure, Rock noted with dismay that his attacks seemed to have little effect.

The giant turned its single eye towards Rock and squinted.

In his infrared scale of vision, Rock could see the blazing laser beam a nanosecond before it hit home. Circuitry melted away and armor peeled aside like wax under the intense beam of light. Rock bit back a cry of pain. His emergency energy was building up at an alarming rate. Desperate to burn it off before he overloaded, he switched to Thunder Beam.

"Take this!" he hissed, and blasted a searing white bolt of energy straight at the giant's eye.

The giant seemed to drink it up. The twisting, coruscating twine of light melted without a trace into the red eye. Rock batted down despair. Could nothing harm this monster? With his free hand, he covered his laser wound. If dust got into the gash, it would contaminate the circuits as his auto-repair systems struggled to compensate.

The giant stopped moving for a moment.

Taking advantage of the situation, Rock fired off another blast of electricity at the robot's crystalline eye. He was rewarded by a roar so deep it was almost subsonic. The walls of the room rumbled with the vibrations. So it was working!

About to loose another round, Rock was nearly crushed against the wall as a large piece of the cyclopean robot detached itself and came hurtling across the room towards him. Rock ducked and rolled, only to be bashed full in the chest by another piece of the robot as it sped across the floor and joined its counterpart.

The sable-haired robot hunter gnashed his teeth in frustration as the giant decomposed itself piecemeal and regenerated on the opposite side of the room. How was he supposed to destroy a robot that could apparently operate in several pieces with no clear core? Perhaps the eye was the core. After all, it had fired the laser, and for such a powerful laser beam to be generated, there must have been a powerful energy source.

Little enough to go on, but it was worth a shot.

As soon as the cyclops had fully re-formed itself on the other side of the room, Rock blasted off another pair of lightning bolts. The first hit the target dead-on, while the next impacted just to the side of the titan's eye, blasting away blackened chunks of stone. The giant roared again and took a quick step towards Rock. Once again, the massive fists swung at the robot hunter.

Rock leaped up and loosed three quick blasts at the crimson eye.

All three blasted home, and Rock noted with grim satisfaction that the last one had shattered the crystalline structure. The shards of red and black spewing away from the titan's rocky armored torso reminded Rock of a volcano in miniature.

However, the giant was not defeated. Once again, it split into a myriad of dangerous, floating boulders. This time, they swirled around the room in a chaotic vortex. Rock was hard pressed to keep himself from being beheaded by the airborne stones. A high-flying piece smashed out the large light fixture in the ceiling, plunging the room into darkness. Rock realized with a mounting sense of panic that his infrared vision circuits had been damaged by the cyclops' laser.

Something that Rock could not describe as anything other than a gut instinct told him to dodge. He tucked and rolled straight forward. As he did, he could feel the wind of something huge moving very quickly above him. He realized with sudden elation that if he had claimed the thing's sight by destroying its single eye, then it would be guessing his position just as much as he would be guessing its. He stood in the inky darkness and fired a round of plasma bursts where he assumed the giant was.

Sure enough, bathed in the harsh light of burning plasma, the giant stood facing Rock. Rock switched back to Thunder Beam and leaped in the air, the ghost of the image still burned into his memory.

Wasting no time on words, Rock loosed as many Thunder Beams as he could into the eye socket of the titan. He could feel the giant shudder. Just as he landed, his infrared vision returned. Static running across his line of vision, Rock could see lines of light forming across the robot, as if it were a puzzle and somebody was shining a light behind the pieces.

Then, almost in slow motion, the giant slid into its constituent pieces. A single small explosion signified the overload of its power core. Rock heaved a sigh and took stock of himself. His auxiliary weapons energy was down by 25%, and his own operating energy had been decreased by 10%.

Nicely done. I do hope you put up such a fight when it is time for us to duel.

"Get out of my head, you bastard," Rock growled, and began his search for an exit that would lead him further into the depths of hell.

* * * * *

Docman jolted. He had settled into a lulling pattern of almost-recharge, calculating a chain of natural logarithms, when the impossible happened. A previously dormant circuit pathway in his brain coursed with electrons. A new subroutine was being written into his programming.

The message he received was: Second ring has been breached. Switch from Guardian mode to Enforcer mode.

Somebody had made it past the Cyclops guardian, and now Docman would have to fight to protect his master's life.

* * * * *

The second ring was breathtaking.

Rock shook his head in amazement. The sight of the vista laid out before him deepened his conviction that Dr. Wily was a genius--although utterly mad. Like something out of a demented M.C. Escher sketch, the second ring was a study in impossibility.

Gaping chasms reached for hundreds of meters, bridged only by platforms that either levitated by use of antigrav packs, or held aloft by small supports that disappeared into the seemingly infinite darkness below. Once in a while, the platforms would lead to a tower that poked out of the chasm--a mechanized spike of bone.

Yes, to design something like this that worked was both genius and insanity. Rock shook his head again. If the first ring had been a glimpse into hell, this was hardly heaven. However, the huge airiness of it was refreshing.

Careful, he reminded himself, it won't be too refreshing to fall to your death in the chasms.

Nine hours, twenty-three minutes, if he was lucky.

Better re-estimate that as six hours, he thought grimly.

Swarming around the man-made canyon were hundreds of DRIM-3's. Rock readied himself and took a deep breath. Well, that's not so bad. At least I know how to destroy these.

And what kind of person only thinks about how to destroy? the virus taunted. I believe that would be the definition of 'evil.'

Rock grimaced. Until a short while ago, he would have agreed. Now, he wasn't so sure. Was he really that different from Dr. Wily? They each had different motivations, but Rock had surely destroyed enough robots now that he would labeled a mass-murderer had his victims been human.

"Stop philosophizing, you fool," he berated himself.

Several quick jumps and some judicious buster fire took him to the first tower in a matter of minutes. The entrance to the tower was a low-ceilinged corridor that led . . . to a dead end? Stymied, Rock took a few steps forward . . .

And fell headlong through the holographic floor.

Idiot! Idiot! the virus shouted gleefully.

Rock had to agree. He was getting careless if he wasn't even going to check for an infrared holo-signature before he started walking. However, now was not the time to dwell on that. Rock threw his weight into his legs and twisted in mid-air so that he would land on his feet.

As he crashed to the ground of a large chamber, Rock immediately noticed three things.

The first was that the room was another giant cube, even larger than the one in which he had just defeated the giant stone robot. His second observation was that in the corner of the room, there was an infrared holo-signature betraying the false floor.

The third thing was an Achilles model.

Rock wasted no time on speech. Instead, he loosed several searing blasts of plasma at the androbot's chest. Although the first two scored direct hits, the androbot had jumped out of the way and hurled its Rolling Cutters.

The raven-haired android smiled darkly. Two can play at that game.

Summoning a Rolling Cutter into his own hand, he leaped at the Achilles model and met it in mid-air. He noted that the androbot's eyes had widened in surprise at sight of another pair of Rolling Cutters. He plunged his cutters into the androbot's chest and loosed several plasma bursts into it as they separated.

He landed with his back to his enemy, and spun around.

The Achilles model held a hand to its wounded chest. Its other hand gripped its own Rolling Cutters. "How?" it asked. "I can't be beaten by you!" It's voice was already starting to rise in pitch as its repair circuits tried to compensate for its mortal wound.

Rock gritted his teeth. I will not become a heartless killer.

"Get out of here. Now." Rock curtly motioned with his head. "Teleport away, if you can. I won't pursue you. However, if you stay here, I'll kill you."

The Achilles model made no answer for a long moment. Then it shuddered. Meeting Rock's eyes, it growled, "Prime Law," and leaped for him.

It was already destroyed and smoking before it had covered half the ground between itself and Rock. The robot hunter shook his head. "Idiot. I'm not going to hurt Dr. Wily. You could have escaped."

He walked to the corner of the room and poked his head down through the false floor.

Below was an opening to a place further down in the chasm. Another spiral of platforms led to another entrance in the tower several stories down. Rock sighed and swung himself down onto the platform.

This time, there were no DRIMs. However, on each platform was mounted a rotating plasma cannon. Rock frowned at the prospect of dodging and destroying each one. However, the task of descending on the spiral of platforms and destroying the cannons kept him from brooding. As he landed at the entrance to the tower's middle section, Rock scanned for another holographic floor.

Sure enough, there was another one. And, Rock suspected, another Robot Master lay in wait in the room below. He poked his head down a fraction of a millimeter--just far enough so that he could see into the room below.

"Damn." An Icarus model. Rock summoned a Rolling Cutter and leaped down, hoping for the best.

His first strike severed the Icarus' model left arm. The Robot master stumbled back screaming invective and hurling electric death. Once more, Rock hurled his Rolling Cutter, and the androbot's energy bolts turned back upon him, overloading his circuits.

Several plasma bursts finished off the Icarus model, and Rock searched for an exit.

My, my. Haven't we become the efficient little assassin?

"Shut up. Shut the hell up!" Rock snapped.

He spotted another concealed exit and dropped down though it. As he had guessed, it was another spiral of platforms, this one leading to the lowest visible entrance to the tower. However, something was wrong.

There were no cannons, no robots. Nothing.

Rock held back, wary. It didn't make sense--where were the guards? All along the spiral of platforms, it seemed as if they had been abandoned. Rock frowned and took a step forward cautiously.

As he had expected, a bomb popped out of the chasm and exploded over his head. Had he been moving a bit faster, he would have been either thrown off the edge of the platform or maimed past mobility by the explosion.

Nasty.

He carefully picked his way down the spiral of platforms, avoiding bombs and shrapnel as he went. The entrance to the tower's lowest level was once again a low-ceilinged corridor. This time, however, it led to a ladder.

Rock hesitated a moment, and then swung down the ladder, descending rung by rung.

Where am I going? he asked himself, irritated. This damn fortress is a maze of hidden passages. How many have I already missed? And what are the odds that I'm going to find Dr. Wily within the next five and a half hours?

None, answered the virus.

"I wasn't asking you," Rock bit.

The descent was quick if dangerous. On the way down, a veritable army of EyeBots scooted back and forth, waiting for intruders. They would have been simple for Rock to dispose of if he hadn't also been dodging the fire of the wall-mounted plasma cannons.

However, when he finally reached the bottom of the tower, he was still operating at 75% of his full operational power. Rock retracted his helmet for just a moment, letting the cool breeze of the Andes ruffle through his synthetic hair.

What a wonderful, cooling wind. Rock allowed himself a moment to enjoy it. How many times had he stood outside of Dr. Light's house and gazed at the clouds, letting the wind run its ethereal fingers through his hair? Once, only a few days after his "birth," he had sat on top of the lab and listened to the sound the wind made in his ears, enjoying the chaotic but soothing modulations of tone and pitch.

Wind was good.

And this is the last time I'll ever feel it, Rock thought bitterly.

An ugly, creeping sensation told him that the virus was at work again. A chill ran down his spine, and he tried to push the feeling back. Rather than dwell on it, he kicked open the hatch that led down and charged his buster.

The android activated his helmet and looked around him. "Goodbye, wind."

He jumped.

He landed hard and recoiled into a fighting stance, buster in front of him. However, the room seemed empty. Quickly scanning the walls, Rock noted an absence of rocky protrusions. There, at least, was one thing to be thankful for.

The soft hum of a levitation platform descending made Rock look up.

On the opposite site of the room, a disc-shaped platform lowered itself to the ground. Upon it stood--

"Stop screwing with my mind!" Rock shouted at the virus. "I don't need your damn hallucinations right now!"

The voice in his head seemed amused. Not this time, my friend. I'm not doing it; the nightmare has come true on its own.

Before Rock was his exact twin.

Visions of the virus-spawned nightmare rushed through Rock's head, and he stepped back in panic. His fear circuits were running rampant, and the virus was feeding more energy into them. Rock felt like scrabbling up the wall and hiding in a hole until he died.

"What's the matter, Rockman?" asked his clone. "Don't you recognize me?"

"Y-you're not real." Rock gulped. He looked down at his hand for reassurance and found that it was still in buster formation. "You're just an illusion."

The other Rockman smiled chillingly. "Oh, I don't know about that." He shifted his right hand into a plasma buster and aimed it at Rock. "Let's see how illusionary this is."

Rock screamed as the plasma hit him dead in the chest. Angrily, he returned fire, but it seemed that most of his shots were totally ineffective. He accessed the Thunder Beam on his weapons submenu and fired off another round of silver-white electricity.

To his amazement, the Rockman copy shimmered. Then its armor changed to mirror Rock's own. What had once been midnight blue was now a steely grey, and the frost-blue color had been replaced by a pale, almost white, gold.

Even more alarming, the false Rockman returned fire with a Thunder Beam of its own!

Rock ducked the bolt of electricity by a millimeter.

Something was wrong. The readouts for that had been entirely different than when he had fought Elecman and the Icarus model in this tower. It was almost as if . . .

Rock switched to infrared vision. Although he could discern no discrepancy in the Rockman copy, the second electrical bolt which it now shot at Rockman was revealed to be nothing more than a plasma burst accompanied by a simultaneously projected hologram of a lightning bolt.

It's an impostor! Rock almost grinned at the thought.

"Nice trick!" he shouted, and charged his enemy.

The room shook with the force of their battle, and brilliant light blazed through the cracks in the door and the drainage system access panel. Smoke filled the room, as a terrible, awful silence spread across the area.

* * * * *

Deep in the labyrinthine coolant-drainage system of Skull Castle was a robot in a cube-like reservoir. It was little more than a high-power energy cannon mounted on a cybernetic brain and equipped with a short-range teleporter, suspended within a disposable bubble-lead sphere.

Bubble-lead had been a discovery of a Vietnamese scientist during the Third World War. It was a seemingly impossible chemical alloy that, while in air, was heavy as lead. However, when immersed in water, it expanded and its weight dropped by 90%. It had been highly useful in the field of underwater exploration and marine biology research.

In this case, eight duplicate bubble-lead spheres surrounded the reservoir. If the robot's own sphere were to be punctured, it could teleport to one of its spares and continue its patrol of the drainage system and reservoir area.

However, for the past several hours--since it had been switched to Guardian mode--it had been restricted to patrolling only the closest tunnels to the reservoir. And for the past half hour--since it had been set on Enforcer mode--it had been restricted to only the reservoir.

Now, its final dormant circuit path flared to life.

Third ring has been breached. Switch from Enforcer mode to Berserker mode.

Continue to Chapter 12--Last Encounter!
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