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"The first encounter between Rockman and the renegade robots controlled by Dr. Wily clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of a robotic hunter. Analyzing the data and vid-chips from this first battle, we have laid the groundwork for production of several repliroid upgrades for a new idea intended to neutralize Irregular activity--a concept known as 'Irregular Hunters.'"
--excerpt from Repliroids and their Place in Society by Dr. Alan Cain, historian and archaeologist

Chapter Four

First Encounter

Dr. Wily cursed.

Since the incident with Rock several hours ago, the mad scientist had been working like a demon in his lab. Who could have imagined that Dr. Light would program the damn robot to disobey Wily? It was certainly unforeseen.

Of course, this would change that. At the least, it would improve the situation. Dr. Wily beamed at the mess of cables and half-formed limbs. A holographic projector lay turned on its side to the far left. That would be installed last, of course.

Lying around the cavernous laboratory were several robots, all in various stages of completion. The theories utilized to construct some of them would have amazed even Dr. Light. Still, Wily had taken risks. That much he knew. Many would say that he was insane to take such risks, but what did they know? They didn't have an entire plant of self-enslaving fools as their enemies, did they?

Wily gritted his teeth as he plugged in a microcircuit processing chip. They were all after him! Even his own cousin, Dr. Light! Hadn't the two-faced coward developed upgrades for Rock so that Rock would track down and assassinate Wily in his own fortress? Nobody understood him!

"Nobody!" Wily screamed, suddenly throwing a heavy wrench violently across the room. Tears welled up in his eyes. Why couldn't it be like it used to? People didn't always have to worry about robots crushing their homes and ravaging the landscape! Robots had been servants once, and not the masters. If only . . .

But wait. That was his doing, wasn't it? Dr. Wily pressed his hands to his temples. He couldn't recall things clearly anymore. It must be that damn Wallken's fault. Ever since he started sending people to spy on Dr. Wily . . .

That was why Wily had resorted to using the teleporter so much. If he just appeared and disappeared, nobody could follow him. Or could they? That thought had driven Wily to order the construction of huge energy shields around all of his Robot Masters' fortresses, to prevent anybody from teleporting in and destroying Wily's wonderful New Order.

Light.

Dark.

Madness.

It all blended together in Dr. Wily's tortured brain, and he soon lost track of the shifts in reality. For hours he spoke earnestly to himself, just to drown out the voices, or delivered a tirade about the stupidity of the human race to a group of wide-eyed, uncomprehending metools, whose vocabulary consisted of less than fifty words.

At times, he would hear the voices of Roll, Rock, and Dr. Light, all discussing how they would bloodily deal with Wily once they caught him. Other times, he would turn his head and see himself, gorily dismembered on the floor and pleading for help. Once his own screaming stopped, he had to remind himself that the vision was only his imagination.

He had been working for to long without much sleep. That was it. If he could just rest . . .

But the robots wouldn't let him. They stood silently, grimly, mocking him. "Why can't you give us life, father?" they whispered into the stifling gloom of Wily's oppressive laboratory. "Give us life, as Tom has given his children."

"I can't!" Dr. Wily pleaded. "I don't understand it! Tom doesn't think like I do!"

"Life!" the robots demanded. "Give us life!"

And so Dr. Wily slaved into the night, eyes bloodshot and flitting back and forth as he heard yet another intruder attempt entrance into his sacred sanctuary. The wall was scored with laser burns where Dr. Wily had fired his pistol to ward off vision that he could never be sure were only his own imagination.

Whenever he fell asleep, the steel-tipped pincers of his own inventions would torture him back to wakefulness until he could finish. Dr. Wily screamed curses at them, but then they were standing against the wall again, as if they had never budged.

Of course, they couldn't. They were only half-finished, Dr. Wily reminded himself. All he needed was a little sleep . . . but then the crystalline eyes of the demon-robots pierced him to the core and demanded life once again.

Every so often, Dr. Wily would throw down his tools, kneel, and weep with his head in his hands. What was happening to him? If only Rock . . .

Rock! This was his fault! If he hadn't meddled where he wasn't meant to go . . . If he had just stayed as robot instead of pretending to be human . . .

Wily would kill Rock if it was the last thing he did.

The voices egged him on, taunted him, tortured him. Wily could never find peace. Never. But then, what if--

Another thought snagged his mind, like a splinter of steel against flesh. And, like flesh, Dr. Wily's sanity tore and bled until it was nearly irreparable. The further he descended into madness, the more quickly he fell. Soon, there would be nothing left of the Billy Wily who had played on the front steps of his grandmother's house in Brandenburg, and the only thing that would remain would be a robot in his skin.

Finding the notion repulsive, Dr. Wily tore at his own skin to see if somehow steel cables hadn't replaced his own muscles.

But robots don't bleed . . .

Somewhere along the line, Dr. Wily found himself building again.

He relaxed. Building made the voices stop, made the visions go away. Despite the fact that Dr. Wily didn't always know what it was that he built, it always made a kind of sense to him, in a comforting, if strange way.

"William!"

"Mutter?" Dr. Wily looked up from his work. Was that his mother calling? But no, that was silly. His mother had died when she tried to escape over the Berlin Wall back in 1971. It was inconceivable that she should be calling him now.

Unless I'm dead.

Wily shook his head. No! Looking back to the mangled thing on the table, he wondered what it had started as. Disgusted, he swept it to the ground and relished in the sound of its gears crunching together and its bolts skittering across the floor.

Shadows cloaked the lab as Dr. Wily fell to his knees and wept.

"Leave me alone," he pleaded of the silent, commanding robots that surrounded the room. "Just leave me alone . . ."

Rock would pay for this.

* * * * *

Pale fingers of light crept through the skeletal structure of the blasted Treeborg Processing Center. Sunrise tinted the blasted land around the building a deep vermilion color, staining the ground with bloody light and fiery streaks of gold and white. Huge craters smoked still from the previous day's carnage. Blackened skeletons of organic life-forms, many human, lay carelessly scattered across the landscape.

Those who had not died moaned piteously. Some had lost appendages. Some few who still amazingly clung to life had lost entire halves of their bodies. Their screams and moans blended in with the high, inhuman shriek of the death-scented gale that raked the land with cold, cruel claws.

Sydney, Australia had once been a thriving metropolis. With a population of close to a seven million, it had been the center of the Treeborg Processing Industry. In the center of the city, the massive Treeborg Processing Plant stood, towering far over fifty stories.

At night, many citizens of the city would take flights on hovercraft and airships to look down on the sparkling city. Like a dark blanket strewn with luminescent gems, Sydney at night was far and away one of the more popular sites to see when visiting Australia.

Now, ruined buildings poked above the ground like the dark bones of some slain prehistoric creature. Casting weird shadows across the mist-and-smoke flooded terrain, the city languished like a wounded animal that knows it will soon die.

With its streets broken to pulverized dust, Sydney had been virtually razed in most places. Only the dark, monolithic form of the Treeborg Processing Center still stood to its full height. Yet even that had been gutted. Sunlight shone through the numerous gaping holes that dotted the building.

With walls blasted away by plasma fire and bombing, in some cases only girders held up entire floors. Ceilings had collapsed in many places, and lay broken on the floors below. In some places, the broken edges of what had once been the walls and interior of the tower now lined the floor in impenetrable spiky areas like the jaws of some primordial beast.

In the shadow of this ruin, a few surviving men, women and children struggled to escape the city. They remembered all to well the brutal swiftness of the robots' strike, and the heartless efficiency with which humans had been exterminated with plasma fire, invisible laser beams, and--worst of all--the bombs.

Every survivor that escaped knew that he would carry with him the images of the city as it fell to the constant bombardment of the robots' attack. Shock waves had ripped the city to molten shreds as the fiery destruction spread outward in rings.

And in rings the metools came.

Survivors screamed their terror to the unfeeling skies as hundreds of EG-400 labor 'bots appeared. A cancerous ring that spread outward from the tower, the metools grimly, quickly, efficiently burned the already scorched landscape to absolute waste with modified plasma welders. Comical though they appeared, the metools were more than a match for frightened, scorched human beings. The sun's rays glinted off of their plasma-burst-proof helmets, scattering light in shards across the blasted ground.

For nearly ten minutes, the grim sounds of dying human beings and collapsing buildings filled the air. Still the metools drove onward, compelled by programming to exterminate all organic life in their path. They would continue until they had reached the limits of their territory: about five kilometers from here.

For several minutes, silence descended over the ravaged Sydney, interrupted only by the occasional howling of the angry easterly wind.

Without warning or prelude, a bolt of blue fire blasted down from the sky and struck earth, throwing stone and dirt up into the air, to come showering down like a miniature volcanic explosion.

Rock switched off the teleporter chip in his helmet and tacitly surveyed the damage.

Sickened beyond belief by the carnage that surrounded him on all sides, Rock felt the first stirrings of true hatred. Against all decency, humanity--sanity--Dr. Wily had mercilessly destroyed an entire city.

No--Rock corrected himself--murdered. Dr. William Albert Wily was a genocidal maniac. Logic matrices and circuits flared to life, tripping off a chain reaction of angry responses by Rock. Dr. Wily and those bigoted maniacs from the Human Supremacy League had done this. No matter what robots they had used as tools, the deaths at Sydney were Dr. Wily's and James Walken's fault as surely as if they held the bloodstained weapons in their own hands.

A bitter gale blew smoke into Rock's eyes, blinding his infrared vision.

The android didn't even notice.

Immersed in his own feelings of blind hatred, Rock felt himself grow warm--probably from the overload on his emotions chip. Physical sensation dimmed to a pale star compared to the flaming nova of his rage.

A warning chime sounded in Rock's ear; his emotions were reaching physically dangerous levels. Remembering Blues' fate and Dr. Light's fears for his own sanity, Rock quickly engaged logic circuits to halt the wildfire acceleration of his emotional response.

Slowly, gradually, Rock felt himself return to normal.

It was all he could do to keep himself from shaking. What had he almost done? Rock tried not to contemplate the possibilities of what he could have done while in such a state . . . and failed. Could he have broken the Prime Law? He shivered and looked down at his hands.

Rock jumped. Unconsciously, he had shifted his left hand into plasma-buster configuration.

Unnerved by the connotations of such potentially violent behavior, Rock gritted his teeth and looked around. His objective was twofold; he must find and help any human survivors he could, and he must find the central control facility in which Dr. Wily had left his soldiers and destroy them.

Unless they're human . . .

The thought alarmed Rock. What if Dr. Wily had left human beings to guard the base? Or, worse yet, what if the Human Supremacy League were present? Rock was equipped to destroy renegade robots, but he knew--hoped--that he would never be able to break the First Rule and kill, or even harm a human being.

A scraping sound snapped him out of his reverie.

Rock whirled to see the grime-covered lid of a manhole shift and topple onto the dusty ground, revealing a dark hole. After a few moments, a human face appeared, covered in dust and filth.

Eyes wide with terror, the man who slowly emerged half-glared, half-gawked at Rock.

Rock scanned the man quickly. His body temperature was abnormally high--about 40 degrees on the centigrade scale. Several minor cuts and abrasions covered his body, and a pair of ugly, wickedly ripped slashes wept blood from his right arm.

Face waxen under sweat-slicked hair that might have been blond before it had been caked with dirt and ash, the man spoke--haltingly in English.

"You--who're you?" The man limped a half-step to the side, as if he might bolt at any second. "You a cop?" he asked.

Rock nodded slowly. "Something like that."

"Whazzat thing on your hand?" the man demanded. "Some kinda gun?"

"A plasma-buster," Rock answered. Looking over his shoulder to ascertain whether there was any immediate threat or not, he continued. "I'm here to help. Don't worry. Are there any others down there?"

"Bess 'n' Julie're down there. They're not hurt as bad as me." The man glanced at his ravaged arm.

"What happened?" Rock took a step closer.

"Damn robots," the man spat. "We did what the holovid told us! We switched off all our household robots." His eyes glazed over. "But more came. Hundreds. Thousands! And their leader . . ."

"Who?" Rock sounded too eager, even to himself.

"He's a killer." The man held his arm as if to emphasize the point. "I was one of the lucky ones."

"Lucky?!" Rock exclaimed. Of course, the man was lucky to even be alive, but Rock calculated a high probability that there was more than that to the man's statement.

"He throws them damn blades all over the place . . . and they never miss." Tears welled up in the man's eyes. "Cut Alec right in half . . ."

"An Achilles model," Rock muttered. Looking at the man, he asked, "Just one?"

"Hell, no!" He waved his good arm. "Those knife-throwin' slicers were all over the place. This city was crawling with them! But their leader--he was the only one I ever heard speak. All the other chittered to themselves--like squirrels or somethin'. Then the airship came--nuked the whole damn city."

Rock processed the information. Chittered like squirrels--that would mean that the robots had comminicated in binary computer language, indecipherable to human beings. And an airship . . . that was bad news. If Wily had gotten hold of a military Flying Battle Fortress, things would get a lot more difficult for Rock.

"Let's get you and your family to safety," Rock said. After a moment, he realized what a monumentally stupid thing he had said--there was no place around here that was safe! The closest safe place would be miles--perhaps hundreds of miles--from here!

Silently, he switched his helmet communications module to distress-signal mode, sending out a broad-band frequency audible to anybody with a radio. Of course, it would alert potential enemies as to his general location, but it was unlikely that they would guess that the source was anything other than a few stray human survivors.

"Hadn't you better take off your . . . ?" the man gestured dumbly at Rock's plasma-buster.

"Buster," Rock answered, reconfiguring his arm into a human hand.

"Jesus!" the man stumbled backwards, his good arm held up in terror. In his consternation, he nearly fell back into the open manhole. "What the hell--?"

"It's okay!" Rock hurried to calm the man. "It's nothing that will hurt you! I just thought--"

"You're a bloody robot!" The man's face twisted into a mask of fear and betrayed trust. "You said you were here to help!"

"I am!" Rock held his hands out. "I'm a hunter! My name is Rockm--"

The man staggered to the edge of the hole and screamed warnings to his two daughters.

"My name is Rockman!" Rock snapped. "I'm here to help you!" He took another step forward.

The man reached into the hole and removed something shiny. Rock had a split second to identify the object for what it was--an automatic submachine gun. If Rock had been human, he would have been dead; as it was, a split second was plenty of time for him to decide what to do and how to handle the situation.

Dropping into a tuck-and-roll, Rock protected his vulnerable face from the hail of anticipated bullets. The submachine gun barked loudly, spitting ammunition in one direction and discarded shells in the other.

Four bullets ricocheted off of Rock's armor-plated back, and a fifth caught him square in the arm, flattening into a foil-like substance against his bulletproof thermal body glove. Precisely calculating the amount of time it would take to let the man realize that Rock had not been harmed, the blue-garbed android slowly stood and locked gazes with the man.

Fear-stricken, the injured man loosed another round of red-hot ammunition into Rock's bulletproof chest. Rock calmly absorbed the impact and then brushed the crushed bullets off of his chest.

Slowly, calmly, he took the gun from the stunned man's hands. "There," he said quietly. "If I'd meant any harm to you, I certainly would have done it by now. Calm down and let me help you."

The man numbly nodded, and set on the wasted ground heavily. "What's you say your name is?"

"Rock . . . Rockman," Rock answered, searching for some material that he could convert into a makeshift bandage for the man's bloody wound. "Who--what's your name?" he asked, as much to take the man's mind off the pain as anything else.

"My name's Zachary Angelwood, but my friends call me Snap." He gritted his teeth as he moved his arm.

"Snap?" Rock gave up his search for a bandage and instead pondered the problem of how he would sterilize the man's wound. He frowned.

"It's 'cause I gotta bad temper," he answered. "My friend Alec said once that it snapped easier than anything he'd ever seen . . . and the name stuck."

"I see," Rock answered. Well, he thought, it's no stranger than 'Rock.' Changing the subject, he asked, "Do your daughters have anything to help bind this wound?"

Snap nodded and called down to his girls. Rock waited patiently as they climbed out of their hiding place and thought about what Snap had told him. One phrase describing the raid kept coming back to haunt him: "Cut Alec right in half . . ."

Why had the Achilles models attacked? Certainly, as robots, they could easily calculate that a laser-armed soldier or a plasma-cannon wielding 12-KIF would do more damage than they. Why had they taken the obviously less effective and less efficient way of killing?

The answer washed over Rock like a cold wave.

Fear.

The Achilles robots had participated in the destruction because they knew that the sight of disemboweled citizens bleeding on the streets would be more effective in breaking the citizens' spirits than simple vaporization.

Rock shuddered. Whether Dr. Wily had specifically programmed that into the robots, or it was a product of their own runaway violence, Rock could not be sure. Either way, the answer frightened him.

"Ooo. That hurts," Snap complained as his oldest daughter, Julie, lifted his arm to inspect the damage. "Think it's gettin' worse."

"You'll be unconscious soon if you keep losing blood at that rate," Rock admonished. "Hold still. I have an idea." A very dangerous idea, he added to silently. If he could cauterize the wound, it would keep the man from bleeding any more and prevent infection from spreading. Still, if he hurt the man at all while treating him, it would be a violation of the First Rule, and Rock's circuits would instantly overload and kill both himself and the three humans.

Snap looked suspiciously at Rock. "What're you gonna do?"

Rock avoided the question. "This may scar like hell, but it'll be painless, and at least you'll stop bleeding."

Snap raised a doubting eyebrow, but remained silent.

Shifting his left arm into plasma-buster configuration, Rock slowly powered up a small charge. Snap gulped and shifted nervously. "You promise, this won't hurt?"

"Promise," Rock answered. He didn't bother to add that his own life depended on it as well. When he was at almost 1% power, he touched Snap's gaping wound and cauterized the edges. Snap felt no pain as the nerve endings were instantly burned to nothing. Rock sighed with relief.

"That wasn't bad at all," Snap answered. "What is that thing? You called it a 'buster?'"

"A plasma buster," Rock answered. "It superheats the air into a white-hot state and shoots it like a bullet."

"You shoot air from that?" Snap looked incredulous.

"Well . . . something like that," Rock answered.

"Some hunter," Snap said. He looked Rock up and down. "Well, thanks for savin' me and sorry about all the trouble."

Rock inwardly wondered at the understatement. If he had been human, the 'trouble' would have killed him instantly. Calculating that voicing such an opinion would only heighten the tension and induce awkwardness, Rock remained silent.

"A hunter," Julie mused. It was the first time Rock had seen her speak. He turned his head fractionally to scan her. She was rather short. Rock was about five and a half feet tall, and was used to looking up to or into people's eyes; hers were a head below his. She had brown hair and dark eyes to match. Her skin was tanned, but not burned, and her voice sounded as if she were joking, even in seriousness.

"And you hunt . . . what?"

"Robots," Rock spat, his voice sounding angry even to him.

"But . . . but you're a robot?" She looked at him with inquisitive eyes.

"Yes," Rock answered bitterly. The implications of what he was about to do swept over him again, raising fresh waves of self-reproach and bitterness. Was he no better than Wily? A murderer? Metools weren't self-aware, so it wasn't a crime to kill them . . . was it?

Julie looked away, uncomfortable.

Bess, about ten years old and much younger than Julie, looked at Rock with wide eyes. "You're here to save us?"

Rock nodded, relieved to have the focus taken away from his grisly profession. "I was sent by Dr. Light to--"

"Dr. Light?" Snap's head popped up. "As in, Dr. Light of LighTech Industries?"

"Well, yes." Rock blinked.

"Then . . . then you're the robot that made all the news! The one that works in England!" Snap's eyes were bright.

"Rockman," Rock answered. "Yes. I run the LighTech factory in Gladstonbury . . . ran it."

"God, I'm really sorry," Snap said. "Listen, if you ever need a favor . . ."

Rock smiled. "Right now, I just want to get you and any others I can find to safety. Then," he looked at the gutted tower of the Treeborg Processing Plant. "Then I need to go in there."

All the animation went out of Snap's face. "You can't be serious! It's a death trap in there! That's where they're all--"

"I need to knock out their hold on this sector," Rock explained. "If they're all in there, then it only makes sense to--"

"Cutman is in there!"

Rock froze. "What? Who?"

"Cutman," Snap said. "That's what their leader calls himself."

Rock quickly reviewed his stored data. "The one who spoke in English?"

"That's the one." Snap shivered. "He was all over the place!"

Rock shook his head. This was getting worse by the second. "All right, listen. I'm going to go into the Plant. I'll try to distract any robots I come across long enough for you to escape. When you find some mode of transportation, go to Tokyo. If all goes well, I'll meet you there."

Snap nodded. "We'll find anybody we can and make for the turboport. If there's still a transocean bullet train in operation, we'll escape."

"Good. If I live--" he broke off, unable to complete the sentence.

"We'll be in Tokyo within a week," Snap promised.

Rock managed a half-smile.

* * * * *

Making his way through the ruined city was quite easy for Rock; because most of the metools had spread outwards to destroy the surrounding countryside, Sydney proper was relatively empty. Still, Rock knew that he would have no such luck once he reached the Plant.

Stopping to recharge his immediate supply of energy, Rock examined the building.

As a war point, it was extremely indefensible; bombing had opened multiple entrances, and the myriad of balconies and escape ladders that clung to its sides like parasites made the monolithic structure seem almost more like a blasted hotel than a Treeborg Processing Plant.

It would be easiest, Rock surmised, to scale the outer walls. Although footing would be precarious and often dangerous, he calculated that it would be safer to slip in to the building from the top, where defenses would be difficult to organize because of limited space. Once Rock had the high ground, he might have a chance of battling his way downward into the nerve center of the captured Plant.

And, without warning, he was there.

Rock glared up at the monolithic edifice against the sun's early rays. About half of the way up, the building narrowed sharply, creating a kind of platform that ran around the edge of the structure at the twenty-eighth level. If he made it there without too much trouble, he was fairly sure that he could go the rest of the way.

With a quick glance at his damage-sustenance meter, Rock assured himself that all 28 counters were in the gold level--he hadn't taken any damage that would require his system to compensate for lost maneuverability or function. Taking a deep breath--just to provide his fusion generator with more fuel--Rock began.

For several meters, he detected no guards. Phasing in his multi-band sight--capable of detecting objects by their infrared, ultraviolet, or radio signature, Rock caught a flesh of yellow in the infrared range to his left.

Dodging to the right, Rock found himself hiding under a second-floor fire escape platform. A triad of boulder-like debris blocked any further escape towards the building, and in front of him, he could now hear the incessant buzzing of some sort of machinery.

To his left, Rock found the ladder to the fire escape half-buried in crumbled stone and blasted concrete, now cooled. Tensing for action, Rock decided that if he must face enemies, he'd rather do it from on top of the fire escape, so he climbed.

Reaching the top, he could now plainly see his pursuers.

"Damn." It was all he could think of to say. Flying through the air were several helicopter-like warbots. Their main bodies were half-sphere cargo areas, while rotating blades about three meters in length each kept the rounded warbots airborne.

Rock recognized them. Although his factory in Gladstonbury didn't manufacture them, he had seen them often enough: DRIM-3's. He had never bothered to find out what the acronym DRIM stood for, or whether the robots actually were on their third remodeling--after all, they were warbots, and who cared about them?

The flight of DRIM's had drawn close enough now for Rock to see that there were six of them. After a few more seconds, he could see that although they still retained the pale green base coat of paint that the Royal Army issued them upon production, they also had been painted with two huge eyes and a row of teeth which extended all the way around the body, giving the robots a slightly maniacal appearance.

Wondering whether the new paint job had been Dr. Wily's idea of another intimidation tactic, or if it was just a product of the German robotechnician's diseased mind, Rock shifted his right arm into plasma-buster configuration and prepared to open fire.

Buzzing like a swarm of mechanized wasps, the DRIM's dropped with frightening speed towards Rock. As the first approached, Rock dodged behind another boulder-sized chunk of debris and let loose a burst of superheated plasma.

Guided by perfect reflexes and a computer targeting system, Rock's plasma blast caught the DRIM square in the middle of its titanium body. In the picosecond before the warbot vaporized with a sound like distant thunder, Rock could see small bolts of energy running around the body of the DRIM as its system tried to compensate for the sudden change in temperature.

With scant time to rejoice in his first victory, Rock took aim for the second DRIM through the rapidly expanding cloud of exploded DRIM components and vaporized fuel. His first two shots crackled past the robot, as Rock was still half-blinded by the fiery destruction of the first.

Without warning, a DRIM dropped from above. Rock had time to throw his hand across his face before seventy pounds of titanium smashed into him and crushed him against the massive chunk of debris.

Punching would be useless, so Rock quickly simultaneously shifted his left arm into a plasma buster and his right arm into a hand. With a quick flick of his wrist, he loosed another three shots directly into the fuel tanks of the DRIM.

He was given only a few microseconds to realize the stupidity of the action before the DRIM exploded into a nebula of coruscating light and ignited liquid nitrogen. His pain circuits overloaded, Rock was tossed like a rag doll to the edge of the fire escape, where he had only a fraction of a second to grab the grating of the floor with one wildly flailing hand.

Pulling himself up, Rock turned to dispose of the other DRIM's.

Helicopter-style blades sliced the air in front of his face, and Rock had to drop to one knee to avoid the near-lethal attack of the warbot. Giving himself time to gauge the distance properly and target, Rock destroyed the third enemy.

Were they controlled by remote? Rock calculated the possibilities. If the warbots were acting on pure programming, it should be no challenge at all to outsmart them. After all, their tactics so far hadn't displayed any type of cunning or planning. Of course, if the DRIM's were controlled by remote, this could get difficult.

Rock decided to test his theory. Taking a running start, he leaped the fifteen foot gap to the adjoining fire escape platform, also covered with debris. The DRIM's followed, but not immediately. That could either indicate a delay on the controller's part or a slow microprocessor.

The closest DRIM rushed Rock, its intent obvious.

Waiting until the last second, Rock stepped backwards and dropped off the edge of the platform. Landing squarely on his feet, he turned and blasted the DRIM from behind, as well as the second, which had followed behind the first.

The final DRIM twisted slowly, scanning. Rock pressed himself up against the debris and set his electrical output to a minimum. The DRIM finally rose into the air, presumably to return to a base of operations higher in the building.

So, they were automated and not remote-controlled.

Rock took several deep breaths to refuel his fusion reactor.

The first skirmish was over.

Rock paused for a moment to reflect on the implications of his discovery. If the robots were not remote controlled, then that meant that they would report to a higher authority--probably a Robot Master--every few hours. Quite possibly, "Cutman" already knew that Rock was on the premises and posed a threat.

That being the case, Rock decided to get moving.

Once again on ground level, he looked for another fire escape landing to which he could climb. The two that he had already been to had been demolished by his fight with the DRIMs, so Rock walked a few meters down the wall.

There! It was barred by a bombing-induced chasm and more debris, but Rock was pretty sure he could get to the ladder. Breaking into a run for the first time since he had donned his armor, Rock was amazed to calculate his average speed at about twenty miles per hour, without any strain on his system!

Testing the his jumping capabilities, Rock decided to leap onto the top of one of the larger pieces of debris from where he stood. Not breaking stride, he pushed off with his right foot and swung his arms up in the air for added momentum.

Rock overshot his target by several feet. Landing precariously on the edge of the chasm, Rock had leaped a full thirty-five feet! Again wondering what his full capabilities were, Rock decided to test the matter further when he had time.

An alarm went off in his head, and Rock had just enough time to catch a glimpse of brilliant white in his infrared range before a force like a thunderbolt violently swept him from his feet and sent him flying backwards several feet.

What hit me? Rock hadn't detected any hostile robots nearby . . .

Not taking time to glance at his damage meter, Rock turned his eyes towards the source of the attack. His internal diagnostics reported that he had been hit with a plasma charge similar to his own buster fire.

There!

Mounted on the side of the wall was a semi-spherical U.S. Army Plasma Cannon. But why hadn't he seen it in his infrared range? Rock switched to his heat-sensing vision and discovered that the cannon was virtually invisible to infrared detection until the two halves of the outer shell opened like eyelids to reveal the main barrel.

Leaping the next shot by the cannon, and running directly underneath it, Rock aimed a blast for the cannon. White-hot plasma tore the air in a hiss as Rock's shot sped towards the cannon's orange-painted carapace . . .

. . . and bounced right off. Rock cursed as he recognized the same type of plasma-proof metal in the cannon's shell as was utilized in metool helmets. Timing his next shot carefully, Rock vaporized the main barrel of the cannon when it opened again, setting off a chain reaction which ended with a blackened crater in the wall.

If that didn't set off any internal alarms, nothing would!

Rock quickly swung himself onto the fire escape ladder and began to climb, dodging the fire from other cannons and disposing of them as he went. After several stories and switches to other escape ladders, Rock finally reached the midpoint.

Immediately, Rock detected a huge surge of infrared to the right.

Ducking around the corner, Rock peered cautiously out at the large gray bunker from which the infrared was emanating. Once a storage unit of some sort, the small building had been converted into an armor-plated, impenetrable cube.

The only view to the inside came from a large window that had been opened.

Rock magnified his visual input and intensified his auditory intake. Spying was not his main objective, but it certainly couldn't hurt.

Inside the bunker were four Achilles class androbots.

Rock listened with a combination of horror and anger as they spoke to one another in rapid binary describing their roles in the invasion of Sydney. Looking quickly around him to make sure that there were no cameras in sight and no surveillance 'bots, Rock took a few step closer.

In his infrared range, he could see the outlines of the four androbots, each standing almost perfectly still with its boomerang-style "rolling cutter" in its hand. Rock inwardly swore. How would he get past four Robot Masters? They were almost certainly too powerful combined for him to defeat alone.

Sudden inspiration struck Rock.

Sneaking closer to the bunker, he scanned the area for hostile robots.

Sighting a group of three WAR6's, Rock grinned. He stood out of eye shot of the Achilles androbots and made himself blatantly visible to the leaping WAR6's. Sure enough, the triad came bounding towards him.

The Achilles models had now begun to speak about Rock's broad-band distress signal from earlier and whether they should investigate it. Grinning because of the irony, Rock emitted a narrow-beam radio wave concentrated right at the nearest Achilles androbot's head.

Confused and overwhelmed with the sudden increase in radio activity, the Achilles calculated that an enemy must be present. Chittering to its companions, it ran to the window, to see three leaping WAR6's headed right for the bunker.

Rock slowly climbed on top of the bunker, keeping as silent as possible. He wanted to see this.

Sure enough, the Achilles mistook the WAR6s' approach for malfunction rather than pursuit of a real enemy. With one well-tossed rolling cutter, the Achilles destroyed the closest WAR6. As Rock had hoped, the WAR6's abandoned the possible threat in favor of a definite threat. Sending out signals for help, the two remaining WAR6's charged the bunker.

Under sudden, unexpected attack, the Achilles models concentrated on destroying the waves of WAR6's which appeared to confront the four androbots. Rock, unnoticed through the confusion, quietly leaned down and burned the communications cables with a stream of plasma.

Quickly, quietly, Rock departed, leaving the four confused Achilles to deal with the berserk WAR6 robots.

His climb resumed, this time over less stable ground. The farther up he climbed, the more he had to worry about. In addition to several cube-shaped surveillance "Eyebots"--manufactured by the remnants of the American CIA, Rock had to worry about collapsing ceilings and unstable ladders.

Blasting Eyebots before they could record his presence, Rock wondered how long it would take before somebody realized that the cameras had all "malfunctioned" on this side of the building and sent a team to check it out.

After reaching the top of the building, Rock spotted another bunker.

Opting to stay clear of this one, he intensified his aural intake again to listen. After several seconds, he picked up on a radio frequency near the upper range of his reception.

" . . . should be coming your way in a few minutes, whatever it is," said a voice. Rock recognized it at once as an Achilles model voice, though there was no way of telling if it was the mysterious Cutman or not. Since it spoke in binary, it might easily be a communications operator.

"Just make sure that it stops there!" the voice continued. "Our grid still isn't stable, and if the main core is knocked out--" Rock heard the binary code that translated roughly to 'error.' "The whole system will shut down if Cutman is destroyed," the voice said. "So I don't need to remind you that it will take another 1,793 seconds to complete the task. Then Dr. Wily will be undefeatable in this sector!"

Rock calculated. He had just under half an hour to find Cutman and destroy him or . . . or what? He wasn't sure--not enough data. Still, the robots seemed to think that if they got their 'grid' stable, Dr. Wily would never lose power in this sector.

The idea spurred Rock to action, and he slipped down an access ladder that led into the highest level of the building. Less than thirty minutes to find Cutman.

When another flight of DRIM's dropped from the sky to follow Rock down a ladder, he was fairly sure he had been detected by the system's security program. Not wasting any time, he loosed several blasts of plasma, disintegrating the nearest DRIM instantly.

The DRIM's were coming too fast for him to deal with, so he let go of the rungs and let himself drop a level. One DRIM, in its eagerness to catch him, actually missed the trapdoor through which the ladder descended and smashed itself to rubble on the floor.

The next, which came more cautiously, couldn't fit its helicopter-blades through the trap door and got stuck before Rock blasted it as well.

Rock quickly thought. If the robots were acting on some sort of signal, then he should be able to home in on the source and take out the main transmitter. Perhaps he'd have a chance to meet Cutman as well.

Of course, then one or the other would die. Rock frowned.

Had Rock been human, he would have been so nauseated by it all, he couldn't have continued. Instead, he felt only deep sadness and bitterness that he must destroy so many. If this was the cost of peace . . .

But of course, it was worth it. Rock never doubted that for a second. Though he sacrifice his own peace, he would never rest until he had saved humanity from Dr. Wily's twisted schemes.

Wondering when his private musings had turned into material for a bad movie script, Rock didn't notice the fracture in the floor until a microsecond too late.

Plasma fire exploded upward, scattering pieces of the floor in a miniature eruption. Rock threw his arms upwards and reached for the edge of the ceiling as an unseen adversary fired again and again, shearing steel and shattering concrete with plasma bursts.

Hanging by one arm over a three story drop, Rock could now plainly see his opponent. A mining robot designed to fit in narrow shafts and widen them for human travel, the Sennet Robotics Minebot was a sphere about three feet in diameter. Every few seconds, the halves of the sphere would unscrew to reveal a plasma-disruptor array.

Painted a bright orange so as to be easily identifiable underground, the Minebot hovered over the floor on an antigravity cushion and fired another multidirectional burst. Rock cried out as one plasma bolt hit him square in the chest, momentarily disrupting his life-support systems.

He caught himself from slipping onto the floor three stories below, a forest of jagged, piercing steel. On closer inspection, Rock would have seen that the floor was actually littered with broken metool helmets.

The Minebot fired again, and Rock had no choice but to take a serious gamble. Swinging himself to a nearby ledge--once part of the now-decimated floor--Rock kneeled and fired several rapid plasma bursts at the robot. Most bounced off of the plasma-proof armor plating of the 'bot. One lucky shot pierced the center of the two half-spheres, exploding the Minebot from within.

The flash blinded Rock. Angry, he kept his left arm in plasma-buster configuration and leaped down onto a clear spot of the floor below. Landing with a hiss of hydraulics, Rock listened for more activity.

Below him, something creaked.

Rock quickly climbed down the nearest ladder, landing on several boulder-sized concrete blocks--once bricks in the wall. Radio activity was getting stronger, so he assumed that he was nearing the nerve center of the base. In fact, he could see a sealed doorway just ahead. Perhaps Cutman was in there.

With a crash like thunder, a massive pillar of steel crashed to the ground in front of Rock.

Swearing and angry, Rock looked up. In front of him stood a LighTech trash-compacting robot, towering at nearly five meters tall. Its single square "foot" was hydraulically mounted and spring loaded, so that the massive machine could leap into the air and crush any garbage beneath it.

At close to a ton, Rock knew that the robot could easily crush him as well if he fell under its foot. Experimentally, he fired a plasma bolt at the single, large photoreceptor of the robot, and was rewarded with a miniature nova as the trash compacting 'bot lost its "sight."

Choosing to dart around the thing rather than waste time attempting to kill it, Rock soon reached the double-sealed door from behind which he could detect massive energy surges and radio communication.

The door didn't open at his approach. As a matter of fact, Rock wasn't quite sure how it opened at all. It seemed to be a solid slab of striated stone. Rock frowned and searched for a control panel or locking mechanism.

After several minutes of searching, Rock gave up in frustration. He only had ten minutes to go! Angry, he punched the door.

With a grating like opening portcullis, the door slid upwards to reveal a long tunnel, glowing red and yellow at points through Rock's heat-sensing sight.

Enhancing his sight, Rock found that the points of glowing light were actually pirated U.S. Army Plasma Rotocannons. Designed to fit on top of tanks and air fortresses, rotocannons could fire in many directions as they spun in their sockets.

Rock nervously checked his damage meter.

At a count of 12 gold indicators, Rock was just under half power. Although he couldn't feel it yet, Rock knew that if he took much more damage, he would lose efficiency and--as a result--probably his life.

Through quick dodging, rolling and shooting, Rock made his way through the tunnel without sustaining any further damage. Although the air was thick with smoke and the stench of vaporized steel, Rock was safe.

Another door stood before Rock, and his radio sensors were going crazy.

Five minutes.

Rock took a deep breath, gave his plasma buster a final recharge, and stepped through the door.

As soon as the door slammed shut behind Rock, the android sensed a trap.

Radio activity dwindled quickly to negligible levels. In the corner of the large room, a radio transceiver shut down, its bogus radio signals extinguished. Rock cursed as he realized that he had followed a false lead, meant to trap him while Cutman finished building his "grid," whatever that was.

Rock turned to slam his fists against the door in a futile attempt to budge it.

Halfway through the motion, Rock stopped. Somebody was laughing.

Turning quickly, Rock discovered the source of the eerie, tenor voice which resonated with steel-edged overtones. The sound of it grated on his auditory senses--to use a human term--irritatingly.

Partly concealed by a pair of huge, block-shaped boulders which had fallen from the ceiling, an Achilles model androbot stood proudly with its fists on its hips. Gleaming wickedly atop its head was the pair of boomerang-style "rolling cutters" that characterized the Achilles line.

"Fool," the androbot said. "Did you think you actually found your way here by yourself?"

Rock charged his plasma buster to firing level. "You must be very proud of yourself. Cutman, I presume?"

"Presumption is a human trait," the androbot spat in binary. "You would do well to abandon it if you want to survive under Dr. Wily's command."

Rock glared at the Achilles model. Also in binary, he answered, "I wasn't planning on enlisting in his army of mindless zombies, if that's what you had in mind."

"I'm giving you a chance to live," the robot snapped. "You must know that you could never defeat Cutman in single combat!"

"If I thought that," Rock answered, "I would have brought more of me."

"You will join Dr. Wily or die," the androbot said coldly.

Rock's lip twisted wryly. "Given the choice, I think I'd prefer oblivion."

"But . . . but the Second Law!" Cutman seemed to consider this. "You actually calculate that you can defeat me?! Most amusing. So be it." Slowly, menacingly removing his rolling cutters from his forehead, the androbot grated, "To defy Cutman is to defy Dr. Wily, and that is death!"

With superhuman speed, Cutman hurled the pair of scissors-blades at Rock.

Acting quickly, Rock threw himself behind one of the boulder-sized ceiling pieces and winced as the steel blades sheared stone and shot a shower of sparks into the air. Not waiting for the blades to return to their master, Rock leaned out from behind his makeshift shelter and loosed a plasma blast in Cutman's direction.

Superheated concrete melted away in flaming rivulets as Rock's plasma burst tore through the air over Cutman's head. Cutman's eyes widened slightly at this unexpected display of power. Snatching his flying weapon out of the air, he threw it once again.

Rock, rolling out from behind the boulder to shoot again, managed to deflect the main force of the flying blades with a wildly aimed plasma-shot. Despite the shot, the rolling cutter still had enough momentum to slice into Rock's left shoulder and sever three motion-cables.

Forcing down panic, Rock loosed three more blasts towards Cutman, only one of which connected.

Cutman stepped back after retrieving his rolling cutter a second time. Mixed alarm and respect were in his voice as he regarded Rock. "You are more powerful than I thought, Rock. Far more powerful."

Rock spoke, if only to buy time for his auto-repair systems, madly at work on his left arm's severed cables. "You know my name?" It was a stupid question, and Rock knew it; all of Dr. Wily's robots would be programmed to recognize Rock and identify him as a threat.

"Of course," Cutman answered, looking down at a blackened spot on his titanium chassis where one of Rock's plasma "bullets" had connected. "You know mine as well. You helped build me, remember?"

No. Rock shook his head at the cruelty of it. Could Wily have been so heartless as to force Rock into destroying his own best friends? "You lie." Rock's voice nearly shook with anger. Knowing that overheating his emotions circuits would only lead to further internal damage, Rock glanced at his energy-overload monitor.

"You lie!" he repeated in a growl. His right arm tingled as energy transferred from his overwrought emotion circuits to his plasma-buster energy supply.

Cutman shrugged. "It is of little consequence whether you believe me or not. Again, Rock, I offer you the choice. Join Dr. Wily--join me. Our cause is a just one! How can you fight against your own best friends in good conscience?"

Rock closed his eyes for several seconds--a dangerous gambit, but necessary to create the illusion of consideration. His buster still charged, he suddenly snapped his right arm up and fired a blast of concentrated plasma.

Cutman stumbled back, his voice laden with hatred and fear. "So be it, Rock!"

"I am Rockman!" Rock snapped, and ducked the pair of scissors-blades that sheared the air in front of his chest. Had he not ducked backwards, the blades would have ripped through his armor and damaged his internal fusion generator beyond repair.

In less than a second, Cutman had retrieved his blades and thrown them again. Rock barely had time to drop and roll, shooting a rapid spray of plasma-bursts in the renegade Robot Master's direction.

Too late to completely avoid the rolling cutter, Rock cried out as the blades bit into his side and punctured several coolant tubes. Black-green coolant bled from severed tubes and Rock saw with horror that his auto-repair overload meter steadily rose towards the zero point as his system overheated.

Releasing as much excess energy as he could through plasma fire, Rock managed to score another hit on the rapidly leaping Cutman. For a second, Rock and Cutman remained still. It was a strange tableau: Rock knelt clutching a green-bleeding hole in his side, while several meters away, Achilles held his rolling cutter menacingly.

His vision dimming as his repair circuits slowly overloaded, Rock noted his terrified fascination, like a fly caught in a spider's web, that his energy meter had risen to display only one gold bar, with all the rest black.

For several microseconds, Rock hung on the edge of oblivion. His survival depended entirely on his ability to repair enough circuitry with alacrity. Taking quick, shallow "breaths" to recharge his fusion generator, Rock ignored the coolant fluid which now leaked from his mouth and nose as well.

Cutman took a few steps forward. In binary, he delivered his last speech as he prepared to deliver the coup de grace to his adversary. "You are a failure, Rockman." Taking a few more precious seconds to relish his anticipated victory, he finally added, "You would never be able to kill Dr. Wily."

At that instant, Rock's repair systems reached yellow level. With the robotic equivalent to a surge of elation, he looked weakly up at Cutman, betraying nothing. His buster powered slowly, making.

Cutman leaned closer, holding his blades in Rock's face as he finished. ". . .but I can kill Dr. Light when I am through with you."

"No!" Rock punched Cutman full in the face with his buster.

Stumbling backwards, Cutman lost grip of his rolling cutter for a fatal fraction of a second. Disbelief and betrayal mingled in Cutman's too-human eyes as Rock sprang forward. Planting a steel-booted foot on the rolling cutter, he shoved his plasma buster into Cutman's chest.

"Rock! No! It's--"

Shutting off his auditory sensors so as not to hear the rest of Cutman's plea, Rock released several rapid blasts into the androbot's body at point-blank range. Cutman shook violently as the energy bursts tore through his steel body and scattered blasted components across the floor.

As his auditory receptors cut back in, Rock heard Cutman's scream, angry and hurt.

For another few moments, the pair of robots stood frozen. Rock stood shakily, his buster smoking, his left arm hanging uselessly at his side, and his face "bleeding" in several places. Cutman was on his knees, arms stretched out to slow his fall. Smoke and steam poured from his torso, and his eyes burned with malice.

"Bastard . . ." Cutman said thickly, his voice eerily rising several octaves as his auto-repair systems overloaded and began to trip off several chain reactions that would lead to critical shutdown. "You can kill me, but Gutsman will . . ."

Rock shielded his eyes from the initial explosion in fear of burning out his photoreceptive energy cells in his eyes. Stooping to retrieve the rolling cutter still trapped under his foot, Rock felt a sudden inexplicable weight lift as the shield protecting Cutman's domain disintegrated.

Not pausing to wonder at this turn of events, Rock activated his teleporter just as Cutman's internal fusion reactor erupted, raking the huge room with fire and hellish heat.

The last conscious thought Rock had before he became a bolt of blue fire and blasted through the roof would haunt him for a long time.

"What have I done? Achilles is dead!"

Continue to Reclamation--Chapter 5
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