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"There's one word I can use to describe Rockman's fight against Dr. Wily: heroism! In one stroke, this android has managed to save both the world and the life of Dr. Wily. How he managed to fight Dr. Wily without harming him is still unknown. All that is known is that Rockman, through amazing skill, courage and self-sacrifice, was able to defeat the menace without leaving a single scratch on his body . . . "
--recording from a newscast given outside of Neo Tokyo city hall on the evening after Dr. Wily's defeat, 200X

Chapter 12

Last Encounter

Docman dodged.

Fearing defeat, he had activated the alarm signifying a breach of the third ring. Once his deception had been realized by the true Rockman, Docman found that the blue robot-hunter was more berserker than warrior.

The chamber blazed with Rockman's rage and plasma blasts. Smoke bled from a dozen minor wounds in Docman's exoskeletal armor. Try as he might, even with timing of milliseconds, Docman never even found an opening in which to fire. For the better part of a minute, Docman found himself fighting for his very existence. With every passing second, his energy reserves drained themselves a little more in a vain attempt to supply his repair systems with enough power to keep functioning.

By contrast, Rockman seemed to gain more strength and fury as time passed. Moving at nearly a quarter the speed of sound, the raven-haired demon that had once been Rockman unloaded blast after blast into Docman. When Docman managed to finally score a shot directly on his adversary's buster mechanism--apparently disabling it--Rockman let out a scream of anger.

Docman had known fear for most of his short existence. Dr. Wily's manic outbursts had threatened the emulation-robot's life more than once. The possibility of instant death was--ironically--a fact of life to Docman. However, Dr. Wily always used a laser pistol when he felt threatened by the monsters in his head. A precisely aimed burst of energy from a laser pistol could end Docman's life instantaneously.

The blood-lust in Rockman's eyes told Docman that what he now faced was agony without measure before any kind of merciful death. The emulation robot's crude emotion circuits began to overheat and fuse together as the a single message was repeatedly relayed through them.

Terror.

Disarmed of his buster, Rockman leaped upon Docman and began bashing at him with titanium-reinforced gauntlets. Blows that could crack boulders repeatedly bashed into Docman's cranial neuro-computer case. The top-heavy robot staggered under the punishment. At this rate, it would be an even bet as to whether his skeletal frame collapsed first or his auto-repair systems overloaded and caused deactivation.

Docman raised his arms and slammed his fists into the side of Rockman's head.

For moment, he thought he'd won. Rockman seemed to go slack for a fraction of a second, and his head slumped forward. Frantic, Docman repeated the maneuver in a vain attempt to crush his adversary's head between his own steel fists.

A low, cold sound made Docman shiver.

Rockman was laughing.

Docman could only stare terrified into his enemy's face as it slowly turned upwards. The robot hunter's eyes literally blazed with an unholy light the color of bloody sapphires. A titanium-armored gauntlet shot and grabbed Docman's wrists.

Snap. The grisly sound rose above Rockman's evil chuckling.

Pain signals flooded Docman's central processor and a gamut of warning alarms lit up his neural pathways. His hands had been broken by a single clench of Rockman's rage-strengthened fingers. He fell to his knees and gasped.

"Play on my fear, will you?"

They were the first words Rockman had spoken since entering his terrifying rage. "Bastard! How dare you!" The android's physical attack redoubled. Docman spat coolant out of his mouth and tried to force air into his internal combustion chamber. The robot gagged and fell further forward onto his maimed arms.

Rockman kicked.

Docman knew from the blazing, intense pain and then the sudden lack of sensation below his waist that the robot hunter had broken his steel spinal support and the bundle of fibre-optic circuit-relays that were encased within it.

"Why?!" Rockman demanded, his voice hoarse from yelling. "Tell me why, impostor! Why does Wily want me to suffer any more? Isn't it enough that I'm as good as dead anyway? Doesn't he know that I can't hurt him, even if I wanted to?" He kicked again, sending the emulation robot skittering halfway across the room.

Docman tried to push himself up on his spindly arms, but overbalanced and crashed onto his side. Brain nearly overloaded with pain signals and power-deterioration alerts, he spat oil and coolant from his mouth and gasped for fuel.

"I don't know," he rasped. The sound of his own voice terrified him. At least one of his voice-synthesis modules had been damaged by overload, and the speech area in his neuro-computer was damaged enough that his words slurred together.

The voice of a living corpse.

Docman felt his adversary grab him by the throat and hoist him. His own vision had begun to fail, and static swam across his darkened sight. The frame-rate resolution of his optical processor faltered, and reality became a series of barely-connected images.

"Please," Docman croaked, pain overwhelming him. "Please destroy me. I have failed my father. I no longer wish to live."

The grip loosened, and Docman's torso fell to the floor beside his legs.

"God," whispered Rockman. "God, what am I becoming?" He seemed to be talking to somebody else. "What are you making me do?!" he screamed. The room reverberated with his anguished wail.

Docman whimpered. "Please."

For several minutes, silence. Finally, Rockman spoke.

"How can I kill anything so pitiful?" Then, a terrible, awful silence.

Docman let his head rest against the floor. His over-heated auto-repair systems still functioned: just enough to feed pain signals to his central processor, but not enough to make any real difference. He was doomed to a long, painful demise because of his adversary's cruelty.

The sound of Rockman's footsteps receding was the last thing Docman heard. His aural interpretation circuits cut out in a feeble attempt to feed more energy to his auto-repair systems. After a moment, his motor-control circuits cut out as well.

Desperate, Docman opened a radio link to his master.

Father, he begged. Father, please. I'm dying. Rockman has breached the third ring, and I'm going to die. Help me!

There was a long pause. Three minutes. Four. Ten. Twenty.

Then, You failed me. Now deal with the consequences yourself.

Docman would have wept if he'd had the capacity. Instead, he lay still, quietly waiting for death and an end to the pain.

* * * * *

Rock collapsed to his knees and choked back a sob.

His adversary's broken, twisted remains lay at his feet, an accusation.

Oh, you naughty boy, the virus chortled. You fight dirty, don't you?

"Shut up!" Rock felt the force of his scream blow another transistor in his vocal output simulators. His voice cracked. "God, shut up." He glared at his hands. His left hand was a morass of crumpled titanium and leaking oil. The false Rockman had managed to score a disabling shot to the matter-synthesis module that allowed him to change his buster back into his hand. Rock's subsequent bare-handed attack on the emulation robot had battered his left buster past uselessness.

He put his good hand up to his head and felt the spiderweb-cracks the robot had made when it brought its fists together against his helmet. A dull ache laced through with a lancing twinge of pain had settled over his head, though it was slowly, if surely diminishing as his auto-repair systems tried to compensate.

He allowed himself a ragged breath.

He was exhausted.

Utterly, totally exhausted.

Pain signals from his maimed hand/buster threatened to overwhelm him. Rock glared at the source of agony and debated switching off all sensation to his left arm. It would be a dangerous thing to do--if his hand were caught in any machinery, he wouldn't be able to feel it until it was too late. However, the pain that radiated from his hand and crawled up to encompass the left side of his torso could seriously impair his ability to continue.

A quandary, indeed. I wonder, will shutting down your pain circuits allow me to hasten my conquest?

"Why did you do that?" Rock looked miserably at the shattered emulation robot that had been his adversary. "Why did you make me do that? Where was the purpose in that cruelty?"

What, no "thank you?" I saved your life--you were paralyzed by fear.

"I would have defeated him."

Bullshit. You would have waited like a deer in headlights for your demise.

"And why would that bother you?" Rock snapped. "Aren't you supposed to kill me anyway?"

My way will be far more amusing. The virus' internal voice sent waves of fear and cold down Rock's torso. I was just experimenting back at the lab. When this virus-hunter is dealt with, I'll show you what I've really learned.

The too-clear memory of the virus' internal attack on his pain sensors made Rock shiver. "You're a sick bastard."

Everything I know, I learned from you, my friend. Was the virus laughing?

"An unoriginal lie." Rock hoped what he said was true. The virus hadn't been controlling his every movement during the battle . . . And he had been enraged by the robot's attempts to play on his fears. What if the virus had only fed his own savage emotions?

Now you see. My darkest ambitions are all copied from possibility matrices that you foolishly discarded. The virus' voice was triumphant. I told you before, Rock. I am you.

Rock shook his head. It couldn't be true . . . could it?

He stood and glared at his shadow, as if it would pull itself from off of the ground and face him with ghostly dark glasses and a black motorcycle jacket . . .

No! I don't have time for this! Rock ground his teeth. He had to find Dr. Wily and prevent death. The Prime Law and his own conscience pushed him further on his quest to find the mad roboticist.

Rock walked and knelt by the ruined, smoking remains of the emulation robot. He had been ready to break its neck and release a blast of white-hot plasma into its fusion reactor. However, its last words had drained the anger from him like a leech draining blood.

"I have failed my father. I no longer wish to live."

Had Dr. Wily programmed him to say that, to play on Rock's emotions just as the false Rockman hologram had played on his fear? That was what Rock's logic circuits told him. However, the way that the robot has said it, with coolant foaming out of the corners of its mouth and choked with sadness . . . Rock closed his eyes.

Dr. Wily certainly had the genius to program such emotion into his creations. And Dr. Wily obviously didn't program the Three Rules into his creations, except a skewed version of the Prime Law that forbade them to hurt Dr. Wily or, through inaction allow him to come to harm.. What would the result be if a robot were programmed with emotions and no Rules to shackle it?

"Almost human." The words were barely a whisper on Rock's lips. Almost human, and he had just killed it. He cast his gaze across the broken body, placed his good hand on its forehead. "I'm sorry," he said. "I wish it could have been different."

A shaft of golden-ruby light spilled into the room.

Rock glanced at the source; during the fight, the doorway sealing off the exit had shaken loose, and now the setting sun sent its dying illumination through the cracks. Rock look ed sadly at the shaft of light, extending down on both himself and his slain adversary.

Blinking, as if to hold back tears that he could not physically shed, Rock took a deep breath.

He turned and made his way towards the other exit: a small grate that presumably led further into the depths of Dr. Wily's mechanized Hell.

"Goodbye, sun."

* * * * *

Snap awoke with a start. Cold sweat thinly sheeted his body under the old quilt he had appropriated as a makeshift blanket. while sleeping on a couch in Dr. Light's house-turned-laboratory. He quickly glanced at his watch. By his count, Rock would have less than eight hours now during which to defeat Dr. Wily and return home.

A newscast on the holovid had revealed shortly after Rock teleported away that the HSL had been obliterated by Dr. Wily's warbots. Realizing that Rock wouldn't have to take on the suicidal job of helping/avoiding human beings who were bent on his death, Snap, Roll and Dr. Light had dared to hope that maybe the robot hunter stood a chance of victory.

Snap quietly stood and scanned the room. Bess and Julie still slept in one another's arms on the loveseat across from Snap's couch. He smiled at his sleeping daughters and quietly left the room.

The holovid was still running in the living room. Snap shook his head as a dozen reporters from as many nations speculated as to the condition of Rockman and his adversary Dr. Wily. Each channel displayed on the holovid was either running footage taken from sentry 'bots visual data banks of Rock's earlier exploits in Syndey and other cities previously occupied by Robot Masters, or showing a detail map of Chile and the approximate position of Skull Castle.

The Australian man narrowed his eyes and picked up the remote to the holovid. Switching all other channels except CNN off, he enlarged the display and turned on the sound. The journalist who spoke to the camera stood in front of a small army of warbots and human soldiers in towering mechanized power armor.

" . . . stationed here in Argentina," the lady was saying. "Having obtained the location of Dr. Wily's hidden fortress by analyzing signals sent by the HSL's spy satellites, the United Nations are now sending a small, elite army to destroy the castle, arrest Dr. William Wily, and recover, if at all possible, the hero Rockman."

Snap's attention was now riveted on the holovid's ghostly three-dimensional display.

"The U.N. estimates an arrival time of approximately five hours at Dr. Wily's fortress. This fort--" the lady stopped and listened to something in her headset. After a moment, she announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been informed that we have been granted an interview with the young lady who gave the U.N. access codes to the HSL's spy satellites. Now transferring."

The image wavered, and was replaced by a picture of a young woman, not out of her twenties. She was bruised but not bleeding, and looked as if she hadn't slept in days. A man's voice spoke--presumably the interviewer. "We're here live with miss Kelly McChord, the young woman who was instrumental in accessing the HSL's spy satellites and locating Dr. Wily's fortress. Now, Miss McChord, please tell the viewers what you told me a few minutes ago."

The young lady--Kelly--spoke. Although her accent American, Snap could hear the near-imperceptible speech patterns that marked her as one who had also grown up in Australia. "I had fallen asleep in a secret passage of Skull Castle--"

The reporter interrupter. "That's Dr. Wily's fortress?"

"Yes. He called it Skull Castle. Since I was a courier for the HSL, I spoke with Dr. Wily a few times." She swallowed. "I could hear the sounds of fighting outside. I was told later that it was more of a slaughter than a battle."

"Told?" The interviewer spoke with the air of one who already knows the answer, but asks to humor the audience. "By whom?"

Kelly's face seemed pinched. Snap felt the muscle under his left eye twitch. "Rockman," she answered. She hung her head for a moment before continuing.

"When was this?"

"About three hours ago."

"And what did he say?"

Kelly thought. "He said something in a different language--Chinese, maybe--and when I told him I didn't understand, he thought I was an American." Snap grinned at that, while Kelly kept speaking. "He started speaking in English. He asked if I was okay, and told me I should escape."

"Did he know you were with the Human Supremacy League?" the reporter asked. Was that a hint of accusation in his voice?

"Yes." Kelly nodded. "He knew, and he told me that I should escape. He wanted to help me, even though he knew that I worked for the organization that wanted to destroy him." She took a deep breath. "He said that he'd keep the defense forces busy."

"And then?"

"I thought he was crazy. I asked if he wanted to die. When I did, I thought he was going to cry. He just said no, he didn't want to die. Then he said he was pleased to meet me, and told me again to run."

"And did you?"

Again, the nod. "I found a truck that had been shot a few times, but the engine still worked. I drove to the nearest town I could find and used a phone. It wasn't hard to get in touch with the Australian consulate in Chile, and from there to the U.N."

The interviewer's voice spoke up again. "And how did you come to have the access codes for the Human Supremacy League's satellite network?"

"All of us were given our own access codes, in case of emergency. Mr. Walken--"

"James Walken, the late commander of the HSL?"

"Yes. He always seemed worried that something would happen, and that everybody should have the power to act if something happened to everybody else." Kelly took another deep, shuddering breath. "I think maybe he was paranoid. Anyway, I gave the U.N. my codes, and from there, I heard that a professional hacker was able to use my codes to access the whole network."

The camera pulled back, and a middle-aged man stepped in front of it next to Kelly. "Because of your help, I hear you've been granted a pardon by the United Nations for your membership in the HSL."

"That's right." She seemed ashamed of it.

"And what are you going to do now?"

The young woman looked straight at the screen--at Snap. "I-I'm going to Tokyo. When Rockman saved me, despite my being who I am, I realized that everything I was taught in the HSL was a lie. I want to go to LighTech labs and see if I can help redress some of the harm I helped to cause."

"That's very noble of you," the reporter said. He leaned to the side, as if listening to something. "That's all the time we have now. Thank you, Miss McChord, for your help and for the interview. I hope you find the forgiveness you are looking for. This is Roland Kendrick reporting. Back to you, Erica."

Snap exhaled as the screen shifted to the image of the female journalist again. So, Rock had been alive three hours ago. There was hope.

"Thank you, Roland." The holographic lady spoke into her holographic microphone. "And I have just received word that the status of Skull Castle has been confirmed. The architectural design is of concentric circles, and sensor sweeps have confirmed that the first two out of four have been cleared of any truly lethal threats."

Roland's voice, still audible, floated out of limbo. "I think maybe we have Rockman to thank for this, Erica."

"I think so t--"

Snap turned off the holovid. So, Rock had cleared the first two rings, and now help was on the way. Perhaps there truly was hope! He turned and began to walk towards Dr. Light's main laboratory.

Roll stood in the doorway, holding a half-completed circuit board.

Snap pulled up short. "Miss Roll! I didn' hear you come in."

"Thank God. He's alive." Roll breathed a sigh of relief. "Hang in there, Rock. Just a few more hours."

* * * * *

Dr. Wily glared at the vidscreen.

Docman--thus far his greatest creation--lay in pieces on the floor of the Second Ring Guardian Station. Nearly an hour past, the emulation robot had sent his creator a desperate plea for help. Wily shook his head in disgust at the memory. The abomination had actually dared to break radio silence and beg him for existence!

Dr. Wily slammed his fists down on the video display of the his saucer, from which he observed everything. Via various spy cameras and the small roach-like sentry robots, Dr. Wily had tracked Rock's penetration into his invincible fortress, and witnessed the destruction of his two finest Guardians.

No matter.

Here, in the depths of Skull Castle, beneath the cental spire, Dr. Wily was safe. Rock couldn't possibly have much longer to live, and even if he managed to find his way through the underwater maze of the Third Ring, he'd never survive what lay in the Central Ring.

The German roboticist flicked a switch amongst the myriad of button and levers on his war mech's control panel, and the video screen flickered. After a brief moment, it wavered and displayed an overview of the Central Ring. Spiral-like, emerged in the cavernous lab where Dr. Wily now waited, and twisted up through Skull Castle's central tower, at the top of which lay an escape route large enough for the saucer module of the war mech.

If Rock were somehow to fight his way to the lab, Wily could easily escape to the upper hangar. A hatch that led straight up would guarantee his safe departure. Anybody foolish enough to follow would find himself swarmed by an army of Heracles-model androbots that waited in the barracks above.

Dr. Wily chuckled. Beyond that lay a teleport hatch. Because the hatch was set on an alternating circuit, one would have to step into it several times in order to finally be teleported to the hangar. All other rooms to which it exited were traps in which waited Robot Masters.

Yes, Dr. Wily would be able to destroy Rock easily if the fool managed to escape the Third Ring. After all, if he managed to get as far as Dr. Wily's inner sanctum, it would only prove what Dr. Wily had been trying to tell the world to begin with: never send a robot to do a man's job.

Wily brought up the display that showed Rock's present location: the drainage system.

Well, just to make things more interesting . . .

With an evil grin, the roboticist punched a button that would signal the remote switch to open the floodgates to that area.

And in the madman's laboratory, the giant war machine floated silently.

* * * * *

Rock landed with a rough exhalation of breath.

He had assumed this was a heating duct. However, if the mixed smells of oil and water were anything to judge by, Rock calculated a 78% chance that this was, instead, part of the coolant drainage system.

That being the case, he would most likely be moving downwards.

The android's hawk-blue eyes flicked back and forth, and he increased the amount of energy reserved for his photoreceptor operation. His his pupils expanded in the darkness in an attempt to garner some shred of detail concerning his new surroundings.

Pale traces of light filtered through the opening above through which he had jumped. The small amount of illumination it afforded was insufficient for fighting purposes, so Rock switched to infrared vision.

The large pipe in which he had landed was an even six meters in diameter. From where he stood, he could see that the pipe extended in both directions for several meters. Behind him, it sloped sharply upwards and to the left. In front of him, it dropped off at a sheer angle. Rock could hear movement from that direction.

Painfully aware of his time limitations, Rock made a few quick calculations. Thus far, it seemed logical that Dr. Wily would be found at the center of Skull Castle, where the protection afforded by the four circles would be at its maximum. The question remained: would Dr. Wily be more likely to hide in a tower at the center, or deep underground?

To wait in the tower would be the easiest way to ensure an escape--especially with his flying machine. However, that would indicate that Wily had admitted the possibility of defeat to himself, and that didn't necessarily compute with the data Rock had gathered so far.

Or did it? Would Wily hide in the depths of the earth, waiting for an attacker to corner him? Especially now that Rock had breached the third ring of Skull Castle, Dr. Wily would be more likely to move upwards, where he could escape in a hurry if the need arose.

If escape is his plan. Rock frowned at the thought. Dr. Wily knew that Rock would not be able to hurt him, and that in a pitched battle, Rock would almost certainly lose against the German roboticist--restrained by the Prime Rule.

It wouldn't be feasible that Rock could thoroughly explore both up and down within his now-limited lifespan. It would be a gamble either way to decide whether to move generally up or generally down.

So, was Dr. Wily confident of success, waiting for Rock in depths of this man-made underworld, or was he frightened and ready to bolt from the tower in the center of the grim citadel?

He probably thinks--and rightly--that I'll most likely be dead before I can even reach his lair. The android's jaw tightened.

Down, then.

Wasting on more precious time, he moved towards the sharp dropoff. From below, he could hear the echoes of machinery moving, and the soft hum of hover engines at work. Gritting his teeth, he swung over the edge, keeping a hold with his good hand.

His feet kicked something metallic. In the dark, empty pipes of the drainage system, it was a stark blaze of noise against the silence. Immediately, Rock could detect radio transmissions on several frequencies as an alarm was raised.

"Damn."

Rock released his grip and fell, switching his hand into buster configuration before he hit bottom several meters below. When he did land, he could see that he had kicked an EyeBot clinging to the ceiling, and that it was already dropping for him.

Rather than destroy it, he rolled to the side and quickly looked for another means of escape. If he could navigate these tunnels quietly, then he would; there was no need for extra noise. The EyeBot landed with a dull thud and opened its five photoreceptors in an attempt to locate him.

Making sure to keep his body positioned in the sentry robot's blind spot, the robot hunter looked from side to side. There, opposite of the way he had just come, was another drop-off, similar to the first.

He tensed and judged the distance. Ten point seven six meters. He should be able to cover that distance in little enough time. If he could fire a series of rapid shots to distract the EyeBot--

Rock grimaced and glared once again at his maimed left hand/buster. He wouldn't be doing any rapid firing with that mess. Due to his carelessness, he would now be limited to a rate of fire half as quick as he was used to.

Heh heh. You sure botched that.

His good hand clenched. "I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you to shut up again."

No.

"Great." Bitterness swallowed him for a moment, and the android could only glare at nothing in the darkness-made-light by his infrared vision. Why had Dr. Light given him emotions and then made him into a weapon? Weapons had no need of emotions--indeed, they were a hindrance. It was cruelty to inflict feelings and a personality for one destined only to kill . . .

Dr. Light . . . it had been his fault from the beginning. Rock clenched his good hand into a fist. He could feel the circuits in his left buster beginning to heat as they tried to follow suit. Yes, he would return to Neo Tokyo now, while he still had time. And when Dr. Light wasn't expecting it, Rock would show him what a mistake it had been--

He felt a strange heating sensation near the center of his brain, but brushed it away as thoughts of slaughter washed through his mind. Oh, Dr. Light would pay. And then Rock would hunt down Dr. Wily for making this necessary. To feel human blood wash over his hands . . .

And why stop with just those two? Humans were a pestilence, to be wiped off the earth! If he could force Dr. Light to remove the virus before he died, then he could kill to his heart content!

The heat became a sudden point of blazing pain, and Rock sucked in air to fuel his emergency repair systems.

A gasp of pain.

Rock collapsed on one knee and pressed his hand and buster against his head, to try to banish the keening wail that had begun to suffuse his entire being. Something was wrong. Profoundly, fundamentally wrong.

The Prime Rule. How could he have forgotten that? And what was he thinking--kill Dr. Light? The module containing the Prime Rule had begun to activate itself; the very thought of murdering a human was enough to nearly drive his system to self destruction.

He felt as if sub-freezing water had been splashed in his face, and his eyes snapped wide open.

"G-god, stop that!" Rock growled.

Just experimenting.

The ache in his head had returned centered around the dents in his helmet where the robot had pummeled him. How it was accompanied by a sharper, more definite edge that the Prime Rule's module had inflicted upon him.

Panting for air, Rock pushed himself to his feet. The virus was getting stronger if it could manipulate not only his body but his thoughts as well. He'd better hurry if he was going to find Dr. Wily and keep him from his self-destructive course of action.

For several minutes, Rock dodged EyeBots and made his way further down into the drainage system. After navigating his way through a nightmarish set of turns, drops and switchbacks, the blue-armored android found himself in a straight tunnel.

So, he had found one of the main drainage lines.

The smooth, circular pipe seemed to stretch for infinity. As far as Rock could see, there was no end to the perfect darkness that extended towards him from the passageway's cold maw. Even scrutinizing the area on both infrared and ultraviolet frequencies revealed nothing but that the pipe was several hundred, if not thousand, meters long.

Click.

Rock wasted no time. He dropped into a tuck and roll, and came up with his buster aimed behind him, where the sound had originated. Another Robot Master? Certainly, there had been enough in evidence throughout the fortress.

However, instead of an enemy androbot, Rock found himself facing a floodgate that had just unlatched. He had less than a half second to gulp in air before the wall of water and oil slammed into him with hundreds of pounds' worth of pressure.

His eyes automatically closed to prevent damage to the corneal lenses. Rock felt himself slam face-first into the iron-and-concrete floor of the pipe. All sensation to his left arm left him as the rest of his body screamed with pain. The sudden shock to his system had overloaded most of the touch-sensitive circuitry on the upper-left side of his torso.

With grim humor, he realized that his useless left buster no longer hurt.

The current of the liquid swept him rapidly down the passage, and Rock felt his hands and armor torn as he was dragged over first one, and then another pipe junction. By the time he had reached the third one, he had pushed himself to his feet, and was able to stand upright while being pushed along by the flow.

No sooner had he regained his footing, however, than he was forced to throw himself backwards to avoid the Sharksfang missile that shot straight through the place where his head had been.

The entire pipe was filled with liquid, now, and Rock had been swept at least a thousand meters by its force. In fact, he could dimly perceive that in roughly another thousand meters, the tunnel opened into a larger room--perhaps a reservoir?

Of more immediate concern was the swarm of underwater missiles and mini-torpedoes that sped towards him. Rock charged his buster and loosed a stream of white-gold plasma bursts towards the foremost of the explosives. If he could make the first one detonate, perhaps it would trigger the rest before they reached him.

Underwater, the plasma threw weird, twisting patterns of light against the cylindrical walls. The first missed the missile, which mocked Rock with its painted fang-grimace. The second blasted off one of its guiding fins, causing it to swerve and crash into the wall of the tunnel.

The explosion hurled waves of fire and smoke through the water, preceded by an almost visible ring of sound. Rock leaned back to avoid being pushed straight into the conflagration, and had to throw himself prone to avoid a torpedo cutting through the explosion.

He could feel circulatory fluid ebbing from a crack in his lower lip from when he had been slammed down by the rush of water. As he maneuvered his back back into an upright position, he could see dark globs of it trailing behind him.

How pathetic. He wasn't sure if the thought had been his or the virus'.

After several more uneventful moments, he was abruptly aware of floating; the floor had dropped several meters and he was being carried above it by the momentum of the stream . . .

. . . straight through a circular hatch that sealed itself off after he passed through it.

He took a moment to examine his new surroundings. He seemed to be in some sort of reservoir, now. In the center of the floor were several large rocks and pieces of rubble--no doubt carried here in the same manner by which Rock had arrived.

From above, Rock could detect a tiny amount of light.

I must be directly under the central tower. The thought almost filled Rock with hope. He still had a few hours left! If he could climb through the hatch at the top of the room and make his way through the tower, he could catch Dr. Wily and be back to Dr. Light's lab for a cure--

Something huge blocked the light.

Rock swore violently and hurled himself backwards as it descended. His speed was retarded by the hindering liquid, though the thing before him seemed to be agile enough in its surroundings. It was at least three meters in height, and seemed to be a large machine encased in a bubble.

He took a quick gulp of the liquid to analyze it. If it contained too much coolant, then firing his plasma buster would be foolhardy to the point of suicidal. A chain reaction here would not only destroy Rock, but most likely cause Skull Castle to collapse, killing Dr. Wily.

To his relief, it seemed that here within the reservoir, there were only trace amounts of flammable coolant. The rest of the liquid was composed of water and other "safe" chemicals that would not be affected by Rock's buster.

He loosed a blast towards the giant thing, hoping to punch a hole in its bubble. If he was quick, he might be able to cause a short-circuit within the guardian 'bot without a pitched battle. The white-hot globe of plasma crashed into the bubble with a crackling sound audible even where Rock stood. A small spiderweb pattern spread across the affected section.

Sensing its attacker, the globular robot rolled towards Rock, too quick in the water to be natural . . .

Bubble lead! The blue-armored android grimaced in frustration. This would take longer than he'd thought. Bubble-lead was a tough, transparent substance true to its name; it was bubble-light underwater and lead-heavy on land. To penetrate a shield made of bubble lead would take several shots from his plasma buster. In a corner of his mind, Rock wondered where Dr. Wily had acquired so much of the substance--a notoriously rare and difficult-to-produce material.

From within the bubble, a bolt of multicolored energy spat forth and slammed Rock against the wall. He could feel it spreading through his torso and igniting pain circuits.

What the hell? Although he had been damaged, the purpose of the attack seemed more to cripple him with pain than to destroy him. Rock gritted his teeth and pushed himself straight, firing a steady line of plasma straight into the bubble-lead case.

With a sucking noise and a flash of light, the robot imploded.

Rock took a few breaths of water to feed his fusion generator. That had been easier than he'd expected.

Too late, he saw the shadow of another robot, identical to the first.

He barely had time enough to propel himself out of the way before it landed and began its immediate approach. Rock narrowed his eyes and loosed another row of plasma blasts into the new robot. Was it his imagination, or was this one moving faster?

Again, the same result. The robot imploded with a flash of light as the bubble lead collapsed in on itself.

No, Rock realized. Not imploding: disappearing! Had it been the same robot?

Once again, another identical robot popped out from a hatch in the far wall and approached Rock, even faster than before. This time, it wasted no time, but fired its own volley of plasma and the strange, many-hued energy.

Rock tried to jump the attack, but knew as soon as his feet left the ground that it was too late, that the liquid had slowed him too much. Instead of leaping over the horizontal rain of blazing destruction, he took the brunt of it full in his stomach. He screamed into the water and blasted the giant bubble with an over-charged plasma burst.

As expected, the bubble crumpled. This time, Rock detected the tell-tale whine of a teleport device. He was ready when the fourth emerged from the hatch at the top of the room, moving with even more speed than it had before.

For several minutes, he played a game of dropping, rolling, dodging and firing when he could. However, he had no way of knowing how many spare shields the robot had. At this rate, he would be dead in a matter of minutes. If only he could destroy it before it had time to teleport . . .

With sudden inspiration, Rock brought up his weapons submenu and called up a Hyper Bomb.

Hurling it at the robot, he ran to the side of the room where a particularly large, sharp piece of rubble lay. As the bomb exploded, Rock switched from infrared vision to keep from being blinded--as he hoped the robot momentarily was.

Sure enough, it had stopped moving.

Wasting no time, Rock leaped forward and hurled the blocky, sharp mass of steel at the robot like an oversized, javelin. He switched back to infrared vision just in time to see the robot crushed against the wall by the makeshift missile; unable to detect it, the robot had not had time to activate its teleporter before it was crushed.

Just for good measure, Rock unloaded several plasma blasts into the inert robot until it blew apart in a shower of sparks and underwater fire. For along moment, he stood still, waiting for yet another attack.

None came.

He exhaled and took stock of his situation. He was still running at 50% energy. With luck, he would be able to recharge a bit while he climbed out of the drainage system. Rock dared to let himself hope, for the tiniest fraction of a second, that he would live beyond today.

Don't bet on it, the virus laughed.

* * * * *

General Mears shrugged in the night air.

As one of the five major generals of the combined U.N. Army, Saul Mears had risen to his position through hard work and sacrifice. Three marriages had failed due to his single-minded dedication to his career, but Mears didn't mind.

His orders today looked like they had been pulled from a comic book. He was to take his elite troops to a giant castle in the mountains called Skull Castle and arrest a megalomaniac who wanted to rule the world.

Secondary orders: rescue the android life-form Rockman.

Rescue a robot . . . now he'd heard everything. Like most people on the planet, Mears had been following the battle between Rockman and Dr. Wily's minions for the past week. Unlike other people, however, Mears regarded Rockman as what he was--a machine-turned weapon that could imitate human mannerisms.

Mears' stepdaughter had a toy robot that could talk when you pressed a button on it--big deal. Just because it said "I love you" didn't mean it actually felt anything; and just because Rockman acted like a soldier didn't mean he was a hero.

Mears shrugged again. This uniform was too tight across his shoulders. He made a note to have it replaced after this assignment was done. Ah, well. Whether Rockman was a hero or not didn't pertain to Mears' orders--he just needed to see if the robot was still functioning and return it to LighTech in Japan if it was.

He looked outside of his pavilion. The hovership was almost ready to lift off. Well, he'd better send a radio signal to this Rockman to let him know an army was on the way; it wouldn't do to destroy the fortress with the robot inside.

* * * * *

Halfway up the ladder, Rock stopped.

It was like a tickle at the back of his brain--somebody was sending a radio signal from outside of Skull Castle. The raven-haired android continued his climb as he tried to decode it.

From the reservoir, he'd found an access ladder and escaped to dry land once more. As he had suspected, he was now at the bottom level of the central tower of Skull Castle. In fact, he had emerged into Dr. Wily's lab. Spare parts and shredded blueprints lay strewn across the floor. The walls were blackened with scorch marks--presumably from a laser pistol. Rock had wondered if perhaps some of Wily's robots had turned against him.

The lab was otherwise empty; all of the video screens in the room had been destroyed--and recently. Rock suspected that he had missed Dr. Wily by a matter of minutes. But why? If Wily's plan was to destroy Rock, why had he fled? And if his plan was escape, why had he been waiting down here in the first place?

Still on the ladder, Rock shook his head and continued climbing upwards. He noticed as he approached the ceiling that was hinged in the center, like giant double doors. Did that mean that the lab had doubled as a hangar for Dr. Wily's flying machine? Perhaps Wily waited at the top of the tower, in case Rock made it that far.

He shivered, and felt his fingertips grow numb.

Not long now. The virus' voice was laden with sadistic glee. Rock grimly continued his climb up the ladder, emerging in a vast, spiral-like room that twisted slowly upwards.

"God!" Rock could not restrain the exclamation.

Suspended in the ceiling in crystalline stasis chambers were hundreds--no, thousands!--of Heracles models. If Dr. Wily were to activate them, they could destroy anything in their path for hundreds of miles. Properly supplied with energy, such an army of Heracles androbots could lay waste to the entire continent of South America within weeks.

That signal again.

Rock could just barely make out words within the repeating radio message. " . . . to Rockman. Bzzzzt--Skull Castle and bzzzzt destroy bzzzzt in forty minutes. Message repeats . . ."

Destroy Skull Castle? What was going on? Had the U.N. finally mobilized?

If they intended to destroy Skull Castle within the next forty minutes, that made Rock's mission all the more urgent--by the Prime Law, he could not allow Dr. Wily to die through Rock's inaction to arrest him and get him away from Skull Castle.

He broke into a run and ignored the rotocannons that sprayed him with plasma "bullets." His auto-repair systems were working well enough that the only damage he took was superficial. Rolling, jumping, running, Rock made his way to the end of the up-sloping corridor and climbed the ladder at the end of it.

And found himself faced with a vast sea of sharpened stakes, coursing with electricity. The only way across the spiky death grounds was a small cargo-transport platform. Grimacing at the memory of using the same type of device in Nokaneng, Rock took a few steps forward and prepared to jump.

One, two . . .

Now!

Rock landed with a metallic clang and steadied himself. From here, he could see that the cargo lift was taking him towards a platform jutting from the wall of the massive room. And at the end of the room was something tall and cylindrical.

He leaped from the elevator and moved across the platform towards the large cylinder.

Ill at ease with the idea of just stepping into it to see what would happen, Rock switched first to infrared and then to ultraviolet scanning, but could detect nothing denoting a trap. In fact, after a few moments radio scanning, he detected slight hypersonic whine that indicated a teleport device.

But to where?

Running his good hand through his mane of black hair, he paced the arc in front of the teleporter. He had no time to waste, and this teleporter seemed to be the only immediate exit. Stepping in would be a gamble . . . but better to gamble than to waste time on indecision.

Rock readied his good buster--no telling what he would end up in front of--and stepped in.

The world turned fuzzy for a fraction of a second before Rock found himself standing in a large cubical chamber with no exit, and one Robot Master.

The Hephestas model turned and glared at Rock.

"So," it said, seeming to dislike the necessity of speech. "You've come this far, then. I wondered why the castle had been switched to Berserker mode. I admire your skill, Rockman, but this is as far as you go."

Rock frowned. "I don't have time for this. If you truly wish to serve Dr. Wily, let me pass. Otherwise, he will die."

The androbot nearly smiled. "You think to threaten me? Very well, then. Feel the power of Bombman mark 2!" And with no further discourse, the androbot leaped at Rock, hurling a jet-black sphere of destruction.

Rock tried to step back into the teleporter, but to his dismay, he found that it had been deactivated. Angered at his own carelessness, he dodged the new "Bombman's" explosive and switched to Firestorm on his weapons submenu. If he could overheat his enemy, then the bomb materials within the spherical androbot would surely react and explode.

With the switch, his armor flickered from its customary shades of blue to a fiery gold and crimson. Wasting no words, he released a blazing wall of flame at his enemy, and was grimly satisfied to see it hit home, hurling the androbot to the ground. Rock was surprised to note that he had been temporarily shielded by a sphere of fire as well.

"What was that?" Bombman mk.2 struggled to his feet, eyes narrowing. "Dr. Wily didn't say anything about this."

Rock frowned and fired another incendiary wall, with the same effect. The androbot recovered more quickly this time, leaping high into the air and raining bombs down on Rock. The gold-armored robot hunter dodged easily and returned fire. He could see that Bombman mk. 2's armor was beginning to noticeably melt. One more blast . . .

With the final strike, he shielded his eyes as Hephestas model erupted into a brilliant explosion of violent crimsons and yellows. Molten pieces of steel and iron landed at Rock's titanium-booted feet and rolled a small ways. Rock lowered his hand and looked around the room. Seeing no other exit, he cursed.

Smoke drifted lazily around the room, and Rock let his gaze follow it to the teleporter--

The teleporter was clear of smoke. Rock narrowed his eyes. That could only mean that it was teleporting the smoke out of the room. Perhaps the teleporter would only stay deactivated if receiving a signal from the Robot Master within.

Hoping to backtrack and find another way to the top of the tower, Rock stepped back into the teleporter. However, instead of emerging back in the cavernous spike-floored chamber, he materialized in another room almost exactly the same as the one he had just left.

However, in place of Bombman mk. 2, there stood a crimson and white androbot with a stove-top helmet and top-heavy breastplate.

A Helios.

Rock's fire-colored armor shimmered and became silver and frost-blue as he summoned an Ice Slasher. "Fireman mark 2, I presume."

"Fireman" nodded curtly and assumed a fighting stance. No talk here--just the will to destroy. Rock almost preferred that, given his time constraints. Having studied Fireman's tactics in New Denver, this Helios model's were nothing now.

Rock dodged walls of infernal heat and conflagration, drawing ever closer to his prey and driving him into a corner with hurled Ice Slashers. The second Fireman's eyes narrowed as he realized Rock's plan, and he charged forward, blazing with fire and fury.

The raven-haired android hissed as he took damage to his outer armor, but stood his ground and called an Ice Slasher to his hand at the last second. Ducking under the Helios' charge, Rock braced the Ice Slasher on the crumpled mass of his left buster and used the force of both hands to slam it straight through the androbot's torso.

The new Fireman crumpled to the ground, gasping a single word. "How?"

Rock took a step back and shook his head. What had Wily's purpose been in naming these other Robot Masters after his generals? Surely, he didn't plan to try again? His fortress was under attack and the U.N. would soon be here to destroy it. What use in creating new generals unless . . .

Unless this was not the only Skull Castle?

"Oh, God." Realization washed over Rock in an ugly, cold wave. If he didn't stop Wily soon, the German roboticist would escape to another fortress every bit as hellish as this one and begin his plan for world domination anew.

The thought drove Rock to turn and walk back into the teleporter. If it had taken him to a new room once, it might do so again. He ran a quick check on his power reserves before he was fully enclosed by the teleportation field. Still at 50% operating power, with 45% of the energy reserved for weapons use still available. Not bad, for having stormed the castle single-handedly.

As he materialized in the next room, he was immediately faced with an Orpheus androbot.

Rock took a half step forward. His armor flickered. What had once been silver now looked the color of burnished platinum, and the frost-blue had faded to a steely grey. Armed with the Thunder Beam, the robot hunter spoke.

"You are Iceman mk. 2?"

The new Iceman nodded. "I am. And what is that to you, Rock?"

Rock's jaw tightened. "Don't call me that."

Iceman half shrugged. "And why not? We used to be friends, you and I. All you have to do is cease this pointless attack and we could be friends again."

Rock shook his head. "My friend was Orpheus. When he became Iceman, he was my friend no longer. And he is dead."

The edges of Iceman's mouth turned up in a sardonic grin. "Is he. Well, let us say his memory lives on in me."

Had Rock been human, his jaw would have dropped. Could it be? Had Dr. Wily saved the personalities of his generals and transferred them to these new bodies? The idea was more cruelty than Rock could stand.

"Liar." He intended for the accusation to sound righteous, but it came out weak.

Iceman's grin widened. "Oh, and what would lying gain me? I remember everything from the moment of my activation until the about twenty minutes after I heard you'd arrived in New Shirewick." He waved a dismissive hand. "After that, I assume you must have destroyed my body."

The grin disappeared. "That will not happen again, Rock."

The fight was quick and brutal. Rock had time to blast off three bolts of coruscating electricity before he was forced to duck and twist to avoid the lethal razor-sharp Ice Slashers hurled in his direction.

Still standing on the teleporter, he felt the world twist as he dematerialized. When he had re-formed in the next chamber, his first thought was that Iceman must have accidentally stopped transmitting the deactivation signal to the teleporter. However, he calculated that the probability of that was only 13%. More likely, he concluded, his attack must have destroyed Iceman, and because he was standing on the teleporter still, it instantaneously activated.

The few microseconds it took to come to that conclusion nearly made Rock forget to take in his surroundings. Once again, he was in a large cubical chamber, more or less the same as the previous rooms in which he had recently fought.

The most noticeable difference was the presence of a large Heracles model rather than another Orpheus. Rock quickly switched to Hyper Bombs, and his armor faded to silver and emerald hues.

The Heracles androbot turned and took notice of Rock, and its lantern jaw clenched.

"So, then. Iceman is again defeated." He shook his head. "Do you intend to destroy everything until you reach Dr. Wily?"

Rock summoned a Hyper Bomb and held it meaningfully. "Unless you enable this teleporter again, yes." The way the Heracles' eyes narrowed told Rock that his theory was correct. His mind raced. Why was he turning up in different rooms? Was the teleporter set a random cycle that would send the user to a different location with each use? If that was the case, it could be literally days before he reached the top of the tower.

"Ridiculous." The Heracles model clenched his fist and took a lumbering step towards Rock. "If you persist in this, I'll smash you myself!"

As it began its juggernaut approach, Rock hurled a triad of Hyper Bombs in quick succession. While only the first struck home and exploded, he could see it had an immediate effect. The cumbersome, triple-plated armor equipped on Heracles models was meant to absorb an impact from outside. However, when it was nearly blown apart from forces on a plane with it, its structural integrity diminished.

Heartened, Rock managed to score another hit before the giant of an androbot was nearly upon him, roaring with surprised rage. He threw himself to the side as one of the massive fists grazed his head. Had the punch hit home, the robot hunter would have been decapitated.

With a nasty grin, Rock summoned a Hyper Bomb and shoved it against the Heracles' chest plate, wedging it between the point where the two parts of the breastplate came together. "Have a nice day."

He rolled out of the way in time to avoid the explosion, but took some glancing blows from the flying pieces of armor. Wondering at the virus' quiescence for the past several minutes, Rock decided that it couldn't mean anything good. If the virus wasn't taunting him, then it was most likely doubling its efforts at eroding the virus-hunting program before--

Rock stopped stock still.

Before he reached Dr. Wily.

He had to hurry. Rushing back to the teleporter, he could already feel cold tendrils of virus' program seeping into his mind. The virus-hunter was breaking down. With cold certainty, Rock knew that his lifespan was now limited to minutes--in the high teens at the most.

As he re-materialized, he saw immediately that he had reached his destination. The hangar was long and tilted upwards. At the end of the long corridor was a hatch that most likely led to the landing bay/launch pad for Wily's machine.

Running as fast as he could make himself, Rock punched the entry button to the main bay doors and rolled underneath as soon as a wide enough space opened.

There it was.

Rock stopped in sheer awe of the moment. Here, at last, was the culmination of his quest. After nearly two weeks of pain, fear and torment, he had reached the end of his search. Before him, in position to launch before the half-open hangar doors, was Dr. Wily's giant war mech.

Plated in brass and still splashed with the dried blood of HSL soldiers he had slaughtered, the mech waited impatiently for its doors to freedom to open. Two giant coolant tubes ran from the main chassis of the vehicle to the engine, which operated the hover engines, the main thrusters and the guiding propellers, which slowly spun.

Snapped back to the moment by the urgency of the situation, Rock desperately scanned the room for a control panel of some sorts. He couldn't let Dr. Wily escape to another castle--his only option in accordance with the Prime Rule was to arrest Dr. Wily and take him out of the castle before the U.N. destroyed it.

There!

Across the room, the control panel blinked with a myriad of lights.

Taking a deep breath, Rock aimed and fired.

The control panel seemed to explode in slow motion, and the massive hangar doors ground to a halt with a hideous, wrenching groan. Rock felt a horrible sense of irrational fear sweep over him. This, then was it. One way or another, he would be dead within minutes. Logic dictated that he could not physically attack Dr. Wily to restrain him, and He could not possibly win against the giant war machine without hurting Dr. Wily and so, activating his own self-destruct mechanism.

And, he reflected grimly, even if he did manage to do that, the virus would kill him in less than twenty minutes. He straightened his back and held his head high as the lethal war mech slowly turned to face him.

"Goodbye, life."

The mech now faced Rock. Atop it, he could see the detachable saucer module that he had seen on the video recordings of the siege at Skull Castle. However, there was no sign of Dr. Wily's personal location within the armored behemoth. A large, bulb-like protrusion at the front, plated with laser-reflective armor seemed to be the most likely possibility. Mounted on either side of the assumed cockpit were heavy plasma cannons--easily doubly as powerful as Rock's own buster.

For several moments, neither of them spoke.

Finally, Dr. Wily broke this silence. His voice came through a large amplifier in the ceiling of the room, presumably broadcast from within the mech.

"Rock. Why have you come?" It sounded surprisingly sane.

Rock took a deep breath, warning himself that Dr. Wily was insane, and that a conversation could easily erupt into violence with little or no provocation. He readied his right buster just in case. "You know why."

"Yes. You've come to kill me." The sanity had left the German roboticist's voice, but he had not yet bridged the gap to hysteria. "You come to release them!"

Rock shook his head. "I've come to take you to jail." He gestured out the half-open hangar bay door. "In less than half an hour, the U.N. is coming to destroy Skull Castle. It's over, Dr. Wily."

"Du willst mich töten!" Wily had slipped from Japanese to German in his speech.

Rock shook his head. "You know I don't have any intentions of killing you--I couldn't even if I wanted to." He hesitated. What could he say that would make a madman listen? "Just please come with me and I promise you won't get hurt."

"Lügner!"

The plasma cannons opened fire simultaneously, and Rock rolled towards the mech, hoping to dodge his own destruction and to move too close for the barrels of the cannons to target him. He had to think of a way to get Dr. Wily out of the mech.

This close to the war machine, he could see a thin line around the edge of the cockpit-bulb. A plan began to form in his mind. Rock stutter-stepped and dodged as the mech moved backwards, and loosed another pair of linked blasts. German invective streamed from the speakers above, mixed with senseless babble.

Poor Wily. He doesn't even know that he's insane. Rock tried to pity his enemy, but found an emotion rising in him that--surprisingly--didn't sting with the taint of the virus' touch.

Anger.

Rock had been Dr. Wily's friend. He'd joked with him, discussed great works of literature with him, gone to concerts of the Tokyo Philharmonic with Dr. Wily and Dr. Light. He had given Wily the benefit of the doubt when the attack on LighTech came. He had offered Dr. Wily a chance at life and even possible redemption.

He had extended Dr. Wily every kindness he possibly could have.

He had destroyed his own life for the sake of this bitter, twisted madman.

And Dr. Wily was trying to kill him.

Rock switched to Fire Storm and blasted the nearest plasma cannon. How dare he! How dare Dr. Wily assault Rock when all the android had ever wanted was to live in peace. His anger built as he blasted again and again at the plasma cannon mounted on the mech.

Wily's frightened, outraged voice blasted from the speakers above.

"You--you're fighting me! You can't do that, Rock! You'll kill me! Remember the Prime Rule!" Panic laced the overtones of his speech. "You are trying to kill me!"

Rock let fire course over the shield covering the cockpit, knowing it would do no harm to Wily himself. "Wily, you had your chance! I tried to help you, and you scorned me! Now you'll face true justice!"

The hawk-eyed android had to hurl himself to the side as the mech dropped sharply in an attempt to crush him. Two more proboscis-like tubes emerged from the top of the mech and began raining invisible laser fire on the room. The floor exploded with the force of the laser blasts, and Rock felt the room heating up, despite the open door and the hangar's own vast size.

"Defy me, will you?" Wily's voice was now laden with rage as well. "We'll see about that! Die, you bastard!"

Plasma blazed throughout the room, accompanied by the high whine of laser fire. A hatch in the back of the mech opened and spat a dozen small missiles at Rock. He threw himself to the side and rolled to avoid the explosions they made. As he hit, he felt his left arm's joint pop loose.

Before he could rise, the virus struck.

Rock felt the virus hunter melt like snow in the sun before the virus' onslaught. Pain coursed through his torso and limbs, and he heard himself screaming nonsense. Lying supine on the floor, he was dimly aware that he had been struck twice by the mech remaining plasma cannon.

And is this the end you wanted, Rock? The virus was laughing in his head, every bit as maniacal as the insane laughter which crowed from the hangar's speaker system. Enjoy your death. I know I shall.

Fighting the virus, Rock managed to push himself to his feet. If he could manage to overheat the armor on the mech, perhaps he could make it jettison the thick plates. He could smash whatever protected the cockpit and retrieve Wily--

And kill him! the virus sang. Kill him, Rock! You know you want to!

Rock growled and built energy in his good buster, readying the Fire Storm once again. His weapons energy reserve had dropped below 30%, and his operating energy had drained to 23%. His internal chronometer gave him four minutes to live before the virus entirely destroyed the virus-hunting program.

He managed to execute a staggering charge before releasing the hellish blaze onto the armor-plated surface of the floating war mech.

"Wily!!" He wasn't sure if the scream had been his or the virus', but it blew his last vocal transistor. Crimson-gold fire blasted across the cooling vents of the mech and melted the plasma cannons to slag. Rock poured more energy into the fire, ever more, until he could see the outer metal melting like wax.

Abruptly, with an impossibly loud crack, the armor plating blasted away from the mech. Part of it hit Rock full in the head and chest, bashing him to the ground and slashing his face with searing pain.

Rock pushed himself up on his hand and knees and looked at the mech.

There, where the bulb had been, was a glass-bubble cockpit, and within it was Dr. Wily. His gaunt, lined face was a study in hatred, limned in hellish shades of red and black with the infernal atmosphere of the room. His teeth were bared, and his hands clutched whitely around a pair of guiding levers.

Directly below the cockpit was a previously hidden hyper-cannon, its energy focused into a massive red jewel that would released a hybrid laser/plasma bolt into anything within range. Rock knew that if he were hit twice--maybe even once--with that weapon, that he would be dead.

As if that's even a question anymore, the virus chortled.

"Shut the hell up!" Rock switched to Thunder Beam.

"You dare to attack me?!" Wily's voice raged from the speakers above. Rock could see the spittle flying from his mouth as he screamed within his cockpit. "Damn robot bastard! I'll teach you!"

Rock released a charged bolt of synthetic lightning into the focus jewel for the hyper-cannon and rolled to the side as it blasted a column of destruction along the wall. Steel ran like water under its punishing glare, and Rock could feel the heat of it crisping the outer layers of his armor, even from several meters away.

As Rock tried to step into a position from which he could once again strike the focus jewel, the virus struck once again. Oh no you don't.

The sable-haired android collapsed to the floor in fits of screaming agony. The hellish fires that blazed throughout the room dimmed in comparison to the ones he felt streaming throughout his body. He twitched spasmodically, and saw his good buster firing Thunder Beams chaotically into the room. His weapons energy store was nearly totally depleted.

He could dimly see that two of the bolts had actually managed to hit the focus jewel, which was coming around to bear on him. Dr. Wily's sweaty, angry face was barely visible over the lip of the mech's control panel from this point.

The last shreds of the virus hunter program tried lamely to push the virus back into the Second Rule module, and Rock made himself stand. He could feel hatred radiating from both the virus and Dr. Wily.

He blasted once more missing the focus jewel. However, the operating lights in the mech suddenly went dark, and the mech slowly began to descend. Somehow, that last blast had short-circuited electrical controls for the war machine!

Inside the bubble, Dr. Wily raged with impotence. In a last act of desperation, he jammed his thumb down on a single button.

Rock could tell, even as he saw it coming, that he had fired the hyper-cannon one last time before all power was cut to the mech.

He saw one possibility as he aimed his good buster at the focus crystal.

Time seemed to slow down. A voice spoke in his head, though it was not the virus--confined for one last microsecond to its prison in Rock's module containing the Second Rule. He thought it might have been his own voice, or that of Dr. Light's.

You don't have to do this. No lives will be saved by your sacrifice--Wily is no longer a threat to humanity. The U.N. will take him into custody and take him to jail. If you do this, it is only for your own sense of justice.

Dr. Wily is my responsibility, Rock answered. Mine will be the hand that brings him to justice. If I don't do this, I will be destroyed by the cannon.

You will be destroyed anyway, the voice said gently, The virus will see to that.

For my own sense of justice, then! Rock decided.

Ruby light gathered in the focus crystal.

Rock charged his right buster the first microsecond.

In the next, he forced all remaining power into his shattered left buster.

In the third, he forced the power through broken circuits. Pain flared through his body, suffusing his being with agony.

If he fired with both cannons at once, he could destroy the focus crystal and completely disarm Dr. Wily, though it would cause his circuitry to overload. He would die as he fired, but Dr. Wily would be brought to justice.

For no other reason, he told himself.

Sheets of agony made him shudder, but on the fifth microsecond, he released the twin plasma blasts at exactly the same time--into the focus crystal.

He felt his body jump as his circuitry overloaded, and realized with his last thought that he had violated the Second Rule by endangering his own life without saving a human's.

And in the sixth microsecond, he felt a horrible, terrified, impotent rage blast across his already numbing body.

Everything went white.

There was a terrible, deathly silence.

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