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"The best way to neutralize these Irregulars is to freeze 'em up. I'll tell you what; I haven't met one of those cross-wired bastards yet that didn't run from a blast of my Ice Shotgun. If there's a robot made that likes being frozen into a block, I haven't met 'im."
--Irregular Hunter Arctus, before his infection with the Irregular virus and subsequent transformation into Icy Penguigo (Chill Penguin).

Chapter Six

Underworld

Blistering heat radiated from the sun-baked stones littering the rubble in Nokaneng.

A sole metool wandered aimlessly between ruined buildings and the gutted frameworks that had once made up tall skyscrapers. Smoke and yellow dust floated in front of its photoreceptors, making its view down the street hazy.

With little difficulty, the metool negotiated its way over piles of rubble, its photoreceptors gathering information as it went. Here and there, it would stop to seemingly examine something more closely.

With almost human actions, the metool turned around and around repeatedly, as if hoping to get a glimpse of something just out of its line of sight. Finally, it stopped and lowered itself to the ground, in imitation of a human sulk.

Sudden inspiration struck whatever intelligence inhabited the metool, and it headed towards a nearby building, once a large skyscraper.

Laboring intensely all the way, the metool made its way up the stairs of the ruined edifice. After nearly two hours had passed, the knee-high, domed robot finished its monumental journey; it had reached the roof of the building.

Taking no time to recharge its severely-taxed energy system, the metool began a ponderous sweep with its photoreceptors, scrutinizing every square centimeter of the ground that it could see from its vantage point up on high.

At times, the metool would twitch as it looked back at a spot it had already inspected, as if expecting to see a hidden intruder come crawling out of the shadows, thinking that the coast was clear.

A low rumble began to the south, growing louder and shaking the buildings of the city, until the metool could no longer ignore it.

Scurrying to the other side of the roof, the metool optically pinpointed the location from which the noise had originated--Gutsman's lair.

A massive ball of fire rose into the air, roaring like a tortured beast, until it disintegrated over the city. Flame fell in lurid streaks, limning the wasted city in shades of vermilion, crimson, scarlet and gold.

Had the metool turned a few seconds before, it would have seen the tell-tale line of blue fire that spoke of a teleport device.

In the depths of the aptly-named Skull Castle, William Albert Wily slammed his fists against the computer console in rage and frustration. Utilizing metools as long-distance spy 'bots was useful but frustrating. It would take him too long to personally teleport himself to Nokaneng now, though there was little enough that he could do.

Gutsman had fallen, and with him, the Energy Jamming Net.

Dr. Wily slammed his hands down again and screamed an unintelligible German curse. How could that pathetic blue robot keep defeating Dr. Wily's generals? How? It made no sense! Dr. Wily had re-programmed those androbots to be masters of death! How could a simple laboratory assistant keep killing them?

"Rock!" Wily snarled. "Damn you, how do you do it? How!!"

To the right of Dr. Wily, his creation stirred, disturbed by the noise.

Dr. Wily allowed his furious scowl to soften somewhat. His creation was truly a work of art. An assassin robot, it was the most advanced piece of work that Dr. Wily had ever completed.

Equipped with a holographic projector, the robot was designed to study and emulate anything Dr. Wily wished. It could project thermal fields to match its exterior appearance, so that even an infrared scan of it would reveal nothing but what it appeared to be. It was even equipped with a small matter-synthesis unit so that it could form a sort of "skin" to that matched its appearance.

Of course, without its disguise on, the robot didn't look too impressive. Its head looked vaguely human, but the resemblance pretty much stopped there. Its shoulders were hunched and wide, bristling with wires. Two large cable-bunches ran from its back to its head, making the shoulders seem even bigger, as did the flared epaulet-structures which served as armor.

The body was slightly cone-shaped, with the narrow part at the waist, and was covered with lights, indicators and various projection modules. Eventually, all that delicate equipment would be covered by heat-resistant armor that allowed only the projection lenses to show through.

The legs were strong, but thin, making the robot appear highly unstable. Only a madman would dream up something as structurally twisted as this; somehow, against all expectation, it was stable and quite functional.

Of course, its purpose was simple. All it had to do was emulate Dr. Light, sneak into Light's laboratory, and kill Light, Rock and Roll. That would put an end to this nuisance. If the robot survived, Dr. Wily would, of course, employ it to kill the leaders of the world's most powerful nations.

"Docman" Dr. Wily had named it. That idiot James Walken had called it "Doc Robot," but the name didn't really bother Wily that much.

Wily shook his head, amazed by his own genius. The German roboticist picked up a piece of armor and motioned for Docman to step forward. Obediently, the robot took a few lumbering steps forward and stopped in front of Dr. Wily.

Wily bolted the armor plate to Docman's torso and stood back to admire his work.

"Rockman," he commanded.

The space around Docman seemed to shimmer and twist for a fraction of a second. Then, with a brief flash of light, a perfect duplicate of Rockman stood where Docman had once been. Dr. Wily nodded in approval.

"Destroy that," he ordered, pointing at a small metool at the edge of the laboratory.

"Rockman's" arm snapped up, metamorphisised into a an egg-shaped arm cannon, and blasted the metool dead between its photoreceptors, scattering flaming debris and ash.

"Dr. Light," Wily commanded.

Again, the air surrounding Docman twisted, and suddenly, where "Rockman" had once stood, now there was a perfect clone of Dr. Thomas Light.

"Good." Dr. Wily grinned and set down his wrench. He was about to make another comment, but searing pain flashed behind his eyes, and the wild-haired man fell to the floor, shaking. Tears burned at the corners of Dr. Wily's eyes as the pain in his head became almost unbearable.

So much pain . . . when will it stop?

Dr. Wily was dimly aware of his own voice screaming German curses, and dull flares of pain as he rolled on the floor, over tools and into table legs. Finally, mercifully, the pain faded, and Dr. Wily was left lying prostrate and sweat-drenched on the floor, low whimpers escaping his throat.

What had he been doing?

Wily grappled with the question for a moment before giving up in disgust and dismay. Slowly, he stood, ignoring the cramps in his legs. What had happened to him? He recalled sitting at the computer, looking at something . . .

Images of fire and a sun-baked city skyline briefly flashed through his consciousness, but Dr. Wily had only a fleeting half-second to catch them.

Docman . . .

Something about Docman . . .

He turned and scanned his laboratory. Soot blackened the walls, lined with mechanized guardians. Here was a cyclops, constructed of stone and steel. There was a huge, mechanized dragon, its plasma-breath array not yet fully operational. He would probably transport that to another Skull Castle, Dr. Wily decided. After all, who could possibly storm his fortress and defeat his Polyphemus and Docman?

Not one person alive possessed the abilities to complete such a herculean task.

Except for maybe . . .

The pain grew in Dr. Wily's head again, and he desperately shook it, as if to somehow shake the intense throbbing out of his skull.

Finding a single object to focus on, Dr. Wily's eyes fell on Docman, still projecting his hologram of Dr. Light.

Tom? Here?

Panic flared in Dr. Wily's pain-crazed mind, and in an instant, he had pulled a laser pistol and fired at the hated enemy.

With preternaturally quick reflexes, Doctor Light dodged the shot and hid behind a table.

. . . and the madness passed. Dr. Wily stared angrily at the laser pistol, appalled at what he had almost done. Weeks of work had almost been destroyed in a single moment of stupidity.

A soft whining noise emanated from behind the table.

Docman? Dr. Wily vaguely recalled programming emotional responses, or at least starting to . . . Had he scared his robot?

Taking a few cautious steps forward, Dr. Wily peeked behind the table, where "Dr. Light" crouched, his hands over his head and whimpering piteously.

"I'm sorry," Dr. Wily said. "I'm sorry, my son . . ."

Several seconds passed in silence before a snake-like smile found its way to Dr. Wily's features.

"Blues," he commanded.

* * * * *

Upon his arrival in Tokyo, Rock was met with twin feelings of relief and alarm.

He had survived his encounter with the twisted Gutsman; that was good, and no small feat. Rock had been seriously doubtful of his chances of survival during the battle. He had planned to take a few hours--possibly even a day or two--to recuperate and recharge. Perhaps then Dr. Light and Roll could make the modifications to his armor and weapons.

The android had anticipated congratulations from Dr. Light, or maybe Roll telling him "Welcome back!" Perhaps he would teleport into an empty room during a break in the pair's work schedule, or maybe Eddie would be there to greet him with his binary language.

The one thing, in fact, that Rock had not expected, was what greeted him.

Harsh lights glared down on the android, momentarily blinding him with their halogen brilliance. The world was abuzz with loud voices, each vying to be heard over the last, and each more intense in volume.

Rock lowered his hand from his face and relaized that he had unwittingly dropped into a crouch, ready for battle.

It was then that he saw the reporters.

The room exploded with questions, all piled one on top of the other. Rock could barely distinguish individual voices in the clamor.

" . . . savior of the human race . . ."

" . . . here in Tokyo, live with the phenomenal man responsible for the liberation of both Nokaneng and Sydney . . ."

". . . reporting live from Tokyo, home of the super-robot Rockman . . ."

". . . drove off a horde of homicidal robots--a true modern-day superhero . . ."

". . . maybe we can get a comment . . ."

". . . if I can just get close for a moment . . ."

Rock lowered his arm the rest of the way and blinked slowly, stupidly. After a moment, it occurred to him that he was still stained with dust, circulatory fluids (his own and Gutsman's) and wearing armor that had been virtually crushed beneath his enemy's onlsaught.

Embarrassment crept over the android. He was drained, emotionally and physically, and in no shape to deal with the media. How had they gotten here, anyway?

"Rock!"

Rock zeroed in on the familiar voice and saw Roll wading impatiently through the sea of bristling video equipment, antennae, microphones, and electrical cables, accompanied by the reporters, technicians and cameramen that went along with it all. The android-girl pushed through it all, apologizing and reaching for Rock's hand.

"Clear some room!" That was Dr. Light's voice, at the back of the room. "Let's have some space--he's damaged!"

Rock heaved himself up and gratefully took Roll's arm for support. His "sister" guided him through the herd of media spokespeople, all of whom were delivering some sort of monologue about the emotional poignancy of the scene.

"Get him to the lab!" Dr. Light instructed, "I'll handle the reporters!"

Roll nodded curtly and continued to help Rock in keeping his balance. He noted, with no small amount of humiliation, that one of his circulatory hoses had torn again, and he was "bleeding" on the carpet through his stomach. He pressed his hand against the wound in an attempt to staunch the flow of green-black liquid.

It occurred to Rock that Dr. Light might have invited the press to give some hope to the rest of the world; if everybody saw that Rockman had twice battled and defeated Wily's minions, then maybe that would inspire resistance elsewhere.

Didn't think much about how I'd feel, Rock thought bitterly to himself, but then that's what this whole "hero business" is about, isn't it--putting up a brave front?

He slowly stopped and straightened, ignoring Roll's protests. As he turned to face the room full of faces, he noticed a correspondent from almost every major country on the planet--which meant that Dr. Light had called them before Rock had even returned from battling Cutman. Rock's lip twitched.

A hush fell over the room, as everybody waited for words from this hero who had delivered humanity from evil twice, against impossible odds.

Forcing the ghost of a grin to his face and ignoring how hoarse and cracked his voice sounded (his voice-synthesis module must have gotten partially fried in the explosion of Gutsman's lair), Rock spoke.

"Two down. Four to go," he rasped, hating himself for the cliché, but knowing that it would give the media something to chew on.

Then he collapsed completely.

* * * * *

Iceman frowned.

"Wrong answer, human," snapped the parka-clad androbot.

The man in front of him was swathed in a similar parka, but dark blue instead of the pale frost-colored azure of Iceman's own. His eyebrows and moustaches were, rimed with frozen vapor, twitched nervously.

"You can't get away with it," he rasped, the Antarctic air hurting his lungs as he breathed in the intense cold. "Rockman will save us. I'll never surrender the key to you."

"I will have control of this plant, with or without your help," Iceman said sardonically. Behind him was a pile of dead bodies, all in one frozen condition or another. Each was horribly skewered by icicles fired at superhuman speed. Frozen blood stained the perfect transparency of the icicles a sick vermilion hue.

The man, director of the Water Purification Plant, allowed himself a bitter grin. After all, what did he have to lose? "If you think that threatening me will ensure my cooperation, you're sadly mistaken." He bit each syllable off, and the frozen atmosphere painted his breath before him in frosty shades of silver and white.

Iceman formed an icicle from the moisture in the air and hurled it with impossible speed at the man, pinning the human to the wall by his now-skewered arm. The man screamed as muscle fiber tore and blood froze on the tip of the icicle.

"Where is the key?" Iceman demanded. "If you do not tell me, I will kill you."

"Rockman will come," the man gasped, his vision dimming. "Rockman will stop you."

Iceman felt his fury rising. With one swift motion he created a razor-sharp icicle, lunged forward, and impaled the human being through his chest cavity.

As the human twitched out its last on the ground, Iceman curled his lip. "Idiot. As if I could be defeated by a pathetic tool user robot." Iceman shook his head. Cutman and Gutsman had both fallen at the hands of this upstart, but he could not possibly be defeated by such a fool. Rock was an idealistic idiot who didn't know the first thing about war.

But Gutsman had been a worthy opponent . . .

Unnerved by this sudden wave of doubt, Iceman brutally kicked the dead human again and again until he knew he had shattered every rib. Then, as an afterthought, he opened his mouth and blew moisturized air into the room, freezing it with his matter-synthesis module.

When he left the control room of the World Water Purification Plant, Iceman knew that nobody would guess that the large mound of ice and snow behind him was really a pile of over fifteen human bodies that had once belonged to the core research team.

Rockman would come. Iceman was sure of that.

Not that the Antarctic exploration androbot was afraid of the tool-user; far from it. If any idea was laughable, it was that a simple laboratory assistant could defeat a warrior such as Iceman. Still, Iceman found doubt gnawing at the back of his mind. Angry at himself for such weak and foolish thoughts, Iceman stormed out of the plant and looked over his realm.

Although he easily controlled all of Antarctica with his robots, Iceman's central stronghold was here in New Shirewick, almost at the South Pole. Here was the World Water Purification Plant--vital to human survival on this planet. Iceman would enjoy destroying it.

Of course, he was forbidden to do such until the command from Dr. Wily. Iceman frowned again, the haughty lines of his face almost human. Dr. Wily was surely taking his time in giving the last command, wasn't he? First, he had delayed in ordering the attack, and now he was waiting to give Iceman his final order.

Had Iceman had any say in the matter, the Plant would have been long destroyed. However, he was firmly programmed against destroying the Plant until he received orders to do so. He had even tried once to defy his orders, but his body, damn its weakness, had buckled under the waves of pain that accompanied the ultimatum.

So he would wait until his master had told him to do otherwise.

In the meantime, it would probably behoove him to check his defenses--not that Rockman posed any threat to the might Iceman . . .

* * * * *

"What?" James Walken's fist smashed down upon the desk.

The man who stood before the leader of the Human Supremacy League shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, and resisted the urge to wipe his forehead with his sleeve. Despite the fact that he was a full head taller than the cinnamon-eyed Walken, the man was sweating.

"I don't know the details, sir, but Nokaneng has fallen, and with it, the Energy Jamming Net." The man squirmed uncomfortably under the fiery glare of his superior. "The news stations are all saying that it's this 'Rockman' robot."

"Rockman," Walken snarled, his knuckles whitening as his fist clenched even tighter. "So, the little robot boy wants to play in the Big League? Let's see what we can do for him?"

The man, whose name was Juan, ran his hands through coal-black hair. "Sir, I'm not sure if that's such a good idea--he's already destroyed two of our--"

Juan found himself a second later sprawled on the floor at the feet of a livid James Walken, laser pistol aimed at his head.

"Am I wrong?" Walken said, tightly controlled, "or did you just imply that a robot is superior to our human army?"

"N-no, sir," Juan stuttered. "I'm sorry, sir. I wasn't thinking."

"I pay you to think," Walken snapped, his grip on the trigger mechanism of the laser pistol never loosening, "It's your job to think, right Juan?"

"Y-yes, sir."

"Juan," Walken said in almost light, conversational tone, "tell me why you said something without thinking. Are you trying to cheat me out of the honest money that I pay to bomb factories and level cities?"

Juan swallowed. This was bad. "No, sir. It just slipped out."

"I see." Walken took a deep breath. "Juan, explain to me why our mission is important. Explain to me why I bother to pay people like you millions of dollars per month to keep this pathetic planet in my palm of my hand."

Juan swallowed again, mainly because that was all he could do in his position that he was reasonably sure wouldn't get him killed. "Robots are inferior to us," Juan recited. "They are lower than humans in every way, and need to be obliterated from the face of this world because they are Satan's creatures."

"That's right. Good boy," Walken allowed Juan an expression of relief. "You destroy robots and the people who make them because it's God's will. I am only a tool of the Almighty. If He had not chosen me to do His work, the earth would suffer from a plague of robots and sin. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir," Juan answered.

"You may stand," Walken said. "Now, I will allow you to express your educated opinion on how we should handle the situation with this so-called hero who wishes to keep mankind enslaved to his own inventions. And remember that honesty, Juan, is always the best policy."

"I say we roast 'em," Juan said.

James Walken smiled. "There. That was easy, wasn't it? Now, I'm putting you in charge of the task force that will hunt down and destroy this Rockman. If you fail, God himself will condemn you. If you succeed, your place in heaven is assured."

"Thank you, sir," said Juan, and left the room, badly shaken.

James Walken sat back in his leather recliner behind his polished oak desk and took a sip of coffee. It was God's will that robots be obliterated from this Earth, and thus it was James Walken's holy mission to carry out that will.

Dr. Wily was a strange companion in this undertaking, but a necessary one. Sometimes, Walken reflected, it was necessary to deal with the devil in order to carry out God's will. Not that Walken enjoyed it; in the contrary. Dr. Wily was the Enemy, in strictly logical terms; he was one of the world leaders in robot manufacture. Still, he was working towards a goal which Walken admired--the liberation of man from machine.

As of late, Dr. Wily had stayed hidden in his laboratory, which made James Walken suspicious. Still, as long as Wily was on Walken's side, then the leader of the HSL had nothing to worry about.

Wily as an enemy . . . that was something that Walken did not envy this Rockman.

And Dr. Light . . . he would pay for this with his life. He was more the Enemy than Wily, and it had been he who bore the responsibility for the tragedy which had opened up this path in Walken's life.

Taking another gulp of coffee, Walken stood and left his office, nearly stepping on a small roach on his way out.

Had he been more observant, he would have seen that the roach's antennae were made of copper wire . . .

* * * * *

Rock awoke in the "operating room," as he had come to think of it.

His damaged hand had been fixed with speed and care, and all sensations of pain had left him for the moment. Banishing unwanted images of Achilles and Heracles both exploding by his hand, Rock's eyes lit on Roll.

"Two down, four to go?" Roll looked at him with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. "Did that Robot Master hit you in the head or something? What a stupid, cliché thing to say!"

Rock grimaced as he sat up. "Nice to see you, too."

"If I had a week to sit down and calculate all the moronic, overused expressions you possibly could have utilized, that would've been at the top of the list!" Roll tossed her hair over her shoulder. "What on earth possessed you to say such a dumb thing?"

Rock stood and tested his balance. "The reporters loved it, didn't they?"

Roll snorted. "Take a look at the Holovid." So saying, she led Rock into the living room, where the Holovid was running, showing eighteen different channels. Each channel was broadcasting some reporter who blathered on about Rock's bravery in the face of impossible odds and his heroism.

"I think they're overstating it," Rock muttered after one particular station--CNN--gave an exceptionally flattering account of his battle with both Robot Masters.

"Forget Superman," said the anchor, "we've got a new superhero for a new age--let's hear it for Megaman."

"I think I've heard that pun enough," Roll snapped. "It's getting just a bit tiresome."

"I like Rockman better," Rock said by way of response. Of course, he hated both names--they made him out to be some sort of hero, and all he cold see himself as was a murderer.

Slaying my own kind, Rock bitterly thought, remembering Gutsman's accusation.

"Want to talk about it?" Roll's voice intruded on Rock's brooding.

"It was Heracles," Rock answered. "Wily's got our prototypes doing the dirty work. He was so completely different . . . there were bodies everywhere . . . Roll, I don't know if I can keep doing this."

"You have to." Roll's statement was flat. "Wily's escalated his attack since you defeated Gutsman. Now there are renegade robots attacking everywhere. And if you don't go to New Shirewick within the next day, Earth will be completely at Wily's mercy; the humans can't hold out much longer on the reserves of water that aren't controlled by Wily's Army down in Antarctica.

Rock sighed. "You're right, of course. I suppose I'll be dealing with an Orpheus model down there. Probably Orpheus himself, although he'll have renamed himself something like Frostman or Freezeman or Iceman."

Roll put a hand on his shoulder. "Rock, you're doing the right thing. Besides, Orpheus was always so holier-than-thou anyway. It'll be good to take care of that, right?"

Rock glared witheringly at his sister. "That wasn't funny. There's nothing funny about any of this."

Hurt, Roll pulled back. "I'm trying," she said stiffly. "It's not easy for any of us, especially you and me. I'm nearly halfway done with my armor now, and I have just as much to look forward to, you know. It doesn't do anybody any good to have you moping around and being depressed all the time!"

Rock threw his helmet to the floor and clenched his fist.

"I know!" he exploded. "I'm supposed to be the big hero who puts on a brave face while I fall apart inside, right?! I'm supposed to just ignore the fact that I'm killing my friends! I'm supposed to go on with a smile on my face and say 'It's easy, folks! Be like Rockman and eat your whole wheat bread every day!' If Dr. Light didn't want this kind of reaction from me, he should've made me without emotions!"

Roll bit her lip and looked down at Rock's fist.

"Rock . . ."

"What?!" Rock looked down at his fists and realized that he'd shifted both of them to plamsa-buster configuration unwittingly.

With great chagrin, he let his arms go limp and shifted his hands back into human hands. Without looking up, he spoke, quietly.

"I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me . . . Maybe I'm having a breakdown like Blues."

"Don't say that," Roll said, a little too sharply. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she added, "Come on. Let's get you into the enhancement chamber and upgrade your plasma buster."

Rock nodded wearily.

As they walked across the room, Rock heard Roll make a soft noise of distress.

"What is it?"

Roll shrugged. "I guess I'm losing it. Maybe I should recharge more often. It's just that the log for the enhancement chamber says that it's been used twice, and we've only ever used it once."

Rock looked up in alarm.

"You're right. What the hell . . . ?"

"Probably just a malfunction," Roll answered as Rock took a step into the chamber. Then she flipped the switch.

Once again, Rock was enveloped in pain, but this time, it didn't seem nearly as intense. Of course, it was localized to only his plasma busters, but it also just didn't seem like much after the fight with Cutman and Gutsman.

He stepped from the chamber and took a look at himself. Everything was the same, with the exception of his plasma buster. Now, instead of being merely a blue egg shape with a gold meter on it, it had a gold meter on one side and a red meter on the other.

"What's this?" he asked.

"A matter-synthesis module," Roll answered. "Dr. Light and I had an idea that if you can replicate some of the attacks of the Robot Masters, then maybe it'll be easier to defeat the remaining ones."

Rock nodded. "Good idea. How does it work?"

"Well," Roll answered, "we've only actually completed two of the weapons. It was very difficult to integrate the abilities of only one Robot Master into your weapon chip, and we were thinking that if you could take the control chips of the remaining Robot Masters, we could use those as a model for the version you'd use. We still have all the work on my armor to do, you know."

"Got it. So what can I do?" Rock looked at his plasma buster with some apprehension.

"You've got the Rolling Cutter and enhanced muscle power," Roll said. Maybe you didn't notice, but your hydraulics and joints should be noticeably enhanced now. Dr. Light did all he could to replicate the strength of a Heracles model, and the Rolling Cutter works on a matter-synthesis principle."

"You still haven't told me how it works," Rock noted.

"I was getting to that. If you access your main program, you should find a subdirectory called 'Weapons.' Look in that for the 'Rolling Cutter' option and choose it."

Rock followed her directions. Of course, it was all virtual--he didn't really see any of the things Roll had said, but he could compute them instantly with his neural net.

"Oh . . . oh, my." Roll began to giggle.

"What's so funny?" Rock demanded. Then he saw.

The color-shift chip had originally been installed by Dr. Light in Rock's helmet as a means of possibly camouflaging himself later on, when Dr. Light had the time to work on the design. It seemed now that the aged robotechnician had found a more . . . humorous application for the chip.

Rock was silver and grey from his head to his toes. Everything that had been pale blue now glittered a pale silver, and everything that had once been darker blue was now a deep grey.

"Very funny," Rock snapped. Wasn't Dr. Light carrying this superhero thing a little too far? It was enough that Rock was being hounded by the media already, but now every time he chose to use a new weapon, his "costume" would change to fit the occasion.

"Well," Roll said, stifling a giggle, "all you need now is a cape and a big 'R' emblazoned on your chest. I'm sure Dr. Light could arrange that."

Rock switched back to his normal plasma buster, and with it his normal colors. "Don't you dare," he half-teased, allowing himself a small grin. "Now get out of here. I'm going to recharge before I go to the Underworld."

* * * * *

As soon as he landed, Rock knew that, unlike the previous two Robot Masters, this one expected trouble. For one thing, the plateau he had landed on was swarming with multidirectional surface-scanning U.S. Army 'bots.

It would only be a matter of seconds before he was discovered, Rock calculated, whether he destroyed the robots or not.

Deciding it was better to keep Orpheus as blind as he possibly could, Rock raised his arm-cannon . . .

But they haven't done anything to me.

Rock cursed himself for allowing the thought to creep in. Still, after downloading the virus that was formed of his hatred and anger into Gutsman's computer, Rock had developed a feeling of guilt towards destroying a robot--even an enemy robot--if there was no immediate cause.

"Too late now," he muttered. Several meters in front of him, higher on the stair-step form of the frozen plateau, was a humanoid robot, painted a pale green. It was familiar to Rock, but he didn't bother trying to remember the name of it; he had more important things to do.

Dodging behind the frozen form of a palm treeborg, Rock watched the military spybot walk past him.

So far, so good. As long as he kept hiding behind the trees that dotted the lower portion of this plateau, he wouldn't have any trouble hiding himself from the less sophisticated spy robots that roved the area.

As he stepped out from behind the tree, an alarm blared on a frequency that Rock knew a human being wouldn't be able to hear. Ultrasonic and highly noticeable to Rock's aural sensors, the alarm was a sure sign that he'd been seen.

Sure enough, he came face-to-face with another military spybot.

Another alarm, this one loud and quite within the rang of human hearing, blared as Rock dropped and blasted the spybot's legs out from under it.

Rolling to the side and dodging the falling debris, Rock was alarmed to notice that only the lower half had fallen; the upper half of the robot still hovered in midair, its razor-taloned hands sweeping down at Rock.

Damn. That was why these had looked familiar; they were the special kind of spybot--called the Hydra because of its ability to function even when its "head" was separated from its lower body. Rock had seen the designs and schematics for this type of robot while working in the factory in Gladstonbury, and knew that the only way to permanently disable one was to destroy the head unit.

As the upper portion of the Hydra swooped down, Rock released a plasma blast and rolled out of the way, quickly regaining his feet and leaping up onto the next level of the frozen plateau. As soon as he had landed on the next step, he was confronted with another Hydra.

Having less time to act, Rock fired quickly at the head, but not before the robot had taken a quick swipe at his stomach, leaving a thin opening and a trail of circulatory fluids behind. Rock grimaced and leaped up to the next level, hoping to outdistance the many spybots which had begun to pass the alarm that there was an intruder.

At the top of the plateau, Rock beheld the grand vista of New Shirewick below him.

Sterile and white with snow and ice, New Shirewick was the city that had grown up around the thriving industry that was the World Water Purification Plant. Although Rock suspected that no living human resided there now, it had once been an active center.

That was back the way Rock had just come. Directly in front of him was a small lake, which was heated from the bottom. Although the top layer was thin ice, the water lower was still liquid, because of the heating system. This had once been a reservoir for those who had lived down in new Shirewick; the waster was kept in liquid form and pumped though specially heated, insulated and reinforced pipes to the city below, after filtering and purifying.

Little use the people would have for it now, Rock reflected grimly.

He thought he detected motion at the bottom of the lake, about five yards below, but the ice and reflection of the pale, green-hazed sun made it difficult to tell.

Noise behind him alerted him to the presence of more robots. Rather than fight and draw more attention to himself, Rock opted to leap into the lake. Of course, he wouldn't be able to swim; he was too heavy for that. Still, it would provide some cover from the sensory devices above.

With a quick check to make sure that the hole from the Hydra's attack had sealed itself up, Rock plunged into the near-freezing water.

The shock would have killed a human being.

Although it was actually warmer underwater than it had been up above, the intense cold still pressed around Rock on every side. At just above freezing, the water was thick and turgid, especially for Rock, who had not been designed with underwater travel in mind.

As he took his first step underwater, Rock's optical feedback indicated that he was not alone. Between a couple of cracks in the ice, there were more multidirectional sensor 'bots, scanning for intruders.

Yes, Rock decided, somebody had definitely been expected.

Turbulence in the water altered Rock to a quickly approaching enemy. Several meters in front of him but approaching rapidly was a propellor-driven missile. Rock almost laughed; it had been painted as a penguin.

Still, no matter how comical its appearance, it was still a missle, and it would still damage Rock if it exploded in his vicinity.

Taking careful aim, Rock fired a burst of concentrated plasma.

Underwater, the plasma was far more visible. Carrying with it its own bubble of air, the plasma left a trail of bubbles and boiling water behind it. It hit the missile head-on, exploding it in a spherical orb of golden fire that was extinguished so quickly, it left only a ghost of light behind in the water.

Well, this was going well. Rock had been here for almost five minutes, and he had only been damaged once by an enemy robot. This was a good sign.

Don't get too cocky, he warned himself. This was still a dangerous and possibly suicidal mission; no Robot Master under Dr. Wily's control was to be scoffed at.

Making his way through the underwater area posed little difficulty for Rock. As long as he kept a sharp eye out for any of the penguin-missiles and the liberally scattered multidirection sensor 'bots, he encountered little resistance.

After a few encounters with more missile 'bots, Rock's thermal sensors indicated a slight increase in the water temperature. For a moment, Rock wondered if he had been detected, but then realized that the temperature increase was his own doing; superheated plasma would certainly warm the water up!

Wary of altering any other sensor probes to his presence, Rock switched to the newly acquired Rolling Cutter. Although he had no idea how effective the replicated lumber-cutting blade would be under water, he was sure that it would attract less attention than several unaccountable temperature increases in the water.

Here was a test subject; on a tier before him, a place where Rock would need to climb in order to get back out of the water, was a sensor probe, scooting back and forth and sending radio signals.

Accessing the virtual Weapons subdirectory, he powered up his plasma buster. Instead of watching his left hand metamorphisize into a now-familiar egg shape, Rock observed five small whirlpools forming at the tips of his fingers--the matter synthesis unit drawing matter so that it could replicate a blade.

Within a handful of microseconds, Rock held a duplicate of Achilles' Rolling Cutter.

Momentary sorrow swept over Rock. There must have been another way to neutralize Achilles without destroying him utterly. If only . . .

Rock batted the thoughts away. Either he was getting better at handling these negative emotions, or his circuits were getting worn down. Either way, he had no time for maudlin reminiscence; Orpheus had seized the world's last source of clean water, and there was no telling what he would do if Rock didn't stop him.

Dimly wondering of Roll had tested the Rolling Cutter before, Rock calculated the trajectory needed to hit the sensor probe with the Rolling Cutter, took aim, and hurled the pair of circular scissors-blades towards the unwitting robot.

The robot's armor had been designed to withstand laser beams and sudden bursts of plasma on the battlefield (it was an Army 'bot, after all). It had not, however, been designed to withstand several hundred pounds of pressure between two diamond-hard, razor-edged Rolling Cutter blades.

Rock's weapon seemed to pass directly through the sensor 'bot, leaving only a thin white line on the exterior armor as it cut through all the internal circuitry.

Then, as if in slow motion, the two halves of the robot slid apart from one another, shooting sparks into the water and leaving bubbles where the liquid boiled from the intense heat of the electrical discharge.

"Damn," Rock spat. That would draw attention fairly quickly.

Several quick leaps onto the tiers that led to the water level brought Rock safely out of the nearly-frozen liquid and back onto dry, if slippery land.

As he landed, Rock slipped and fell in an undignified heap on his rear, cursing. So much for maintaining that invincible superhero image. Half-grinning in self-mockery, Rock pulled himself to his feet and took a few slow, careful steps forward. Despite the fact that he moved with care and precision, even the negligible amount of momentum generated by that motion was enough to carry him forward several inches after he had stopped walking.

This would be interesting.

Taking a deep breath to make sure that his internal fusion reactor was fully charged, Rock surveyed the area once again. Now that he had safely navigated his way through the reservoir, Rock stood before a large wall of ice and rock, thrust up in primordial days from the earth by an earthquake long forgotten. Beyond that, there was no telling what lay. However, Rock calculated that if the fault line followed normal behavior, there would be a large chasm on the other side . . .

Which brought him to a more immediate problem; several meters ahead of him, as wide across as several tanker trucks, a large hole gaped. It would be easy enough to walk around it, but Rock suspected that it had once been a cargo-unloading area for the Purification Plant. If so, it would probably have a ladder or moving platform or elevator that would convey him safely to the bottom of the chasm from which the Purification Plant drew its water.

Taking several steps forward, Rock failed to compensate for the slick surface of the ice he trod upon and toppled, arms windmilling, into the cool blueness of the hole.

Immediately, he realized that any ladder or lift that had once been here had long since been obliterated by Orpheus' robots. Burn marks stained the stone under the ice, and frayed electrical cables spat sparks into the air as Rock fell, fingers clawing the impossibly smooth surface in a vain attempt to slow his lethally quick descent.

Equations ran in Rock's brain, calculating his chances of survival if he landed on the ground, nearly 50 meters below. Although his calculations provided for the slowing effect of the water that had puddled on the floor below to almost Rock's height, his chances of survival were still bleak.

Logic dictated that any actions of Rock's would be futile, that his end would still be the same. However, Rock's emotion circuits flared to life and produced a sudden, last minute decision out of desperation.

Summoning a Rolling Cutter into existence, Rock jammed the diamond-hard blades into the wall with all the force he could muster and felt himself jerk to a wrenching stop as the blades found purchase and bit deep into the ice and rock that made up the edifice.

Rock took several deep breaths to recharge his system; it had been providing emergency power--robotic adrenaline--in vast excess for the past several seconds, and left him in an exhausted state.

After almost a full minute of hanging from the wall, recharging his systems, Rock took a look around.

About where he hung had once been the ground; he could tell because several meters away stood the last vestiges of the foundations of this part of the center. Below him yawned several meters of empty space that finally terminated in the water-covered floor of what had once been a basement storage facility. Rock could dimly make out a sensor 'bot patrolling the area below.

As he calculated several possibilities, Rock felt a tingling sensation before him.

Air rushed towards a spot a few meters below and to the left of Rock, as if some eldritch force had suddenly conspired to draw the winds towards the center of the room. Through his infrared and ultraviolet vision modes, Rock could detect streams of energy spiraling around the point at which the air seemed to be headed.

Then, with a sound the was halfway in between a gust of wind and a low growl that was almost subsonic for its deep bass quality, a large cube of matter formed in the air and floated in place.

Rock gaped.

His chemical and molecular analysis module tied itself into virtual knots as it attempted to discern the physical structure of the thing. To a large extent, it seemed to be made up of glass and quartzite. Laced through its structure in intricate threads were microscopic strings of titanium-alloyed steel and other substances which Rock's sensors couldn't decipher.

For several seconds, this anomaly hung in mid-air, within jumping distance of the dumbfounded android. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, but with far less prelude, it disappeared.

Had Rock been human, he would have shaken his head and dismissed at as lack of sleep, stress-induced hallucination or a number of other things. However, he merely worked furiously in his positronic brain to unravel the riddle.

Was it Dr. Wily's creation? Certainly, it had the tell-tale genius mixed with something not quite definable that was the hallmark of the German roboticist's work. Of course, it could also be a government test substance of some sort; since Antarctic settlements were isolated from the rest of the world, they were often used a guinea pigs by other governments to test technological experiments on.

But why would any government create blocks that appeared and disappeared with no particular purpose, and why would they put them smack in the middle of where the foundation for the floor had once lain?

Perhaps it was something of Dr. Light's, sent as an aid to Rock in this time of--

No. If Dr. Light had been able to teleport anything this close to the center, then Rock himself would have already started out his journey that much closer to Orpheus' lair.

Dr. Wily, then? But why? Rock's musing was cut short as his Rolling Cutter began to slip. Solid as its grip was on the ice, it was only replicated matter, and not meant to exist forever in this configuration.

Batting down panic, Rock searched for a way to save himself. The fall from this distance would assuredly not kill him, now that he had stopped himself. However, there was no assurance that he could get out of the walled-in chasm that had once been the basement if he fell.

If only . . .

The block appeared again, in a rush of air and noise.

Wasting no time, Rock leaped to the block and flexed his fingers, their joints made weak by the undue stress forced upon them for the last few minutes.

Rock's internal chronometer told him that the block had only existed for roughly seconds last time; there was no reason to believe it would be longer this time.

Granted a momentary reprieve, Rock cast about quickly for some means to reach the floor-level foundation that still stuck out from the furthest wall. Certainly, a jump from this distance would only result in a glorious fall.

What, then?

His quandary was solved as another block materialized before him, only a few meters away.

Taking a leap without hesitation, Rock heard a nearly imperceptible whoosh as the block he had been standing on moments before vanished into the air as if it had never existed.

Several meters below him, a dizzying height away, the sensor 'bot scooted around on the floor. Rock idly watched it trace random patterns in the frost-rimed water as he waited for another block to appear.

Sure enough, a deep bass groan accompanied by a rush of air that rose octaves heralded the appearance of another block in the sequence. Rock had already established the blocks' exact timing pattern and had projected a possible course for the strange blocks to follow based upon their already-monitered progress.

Upon his next leap, Rock found that he had miscalculated by several inches, causing him to slip and teeter dangerously on the edge of the block. Barely had he regained his balance before he was forced to make the next jump--this time on to the ruins of the foundation.

Giving quick thanks to Dr. Light for programming him so well, Rock took stock of his position once again. He was stranded on an outcropping of steel beams and mortar, all encased in solid ice, which did nothing to help his footing.

On all four sides, he was surrounded by a lethal drop. Behind him and on both his left and right stretched the pit he had just spanned on the mysterious blocks. Before him was a dark shaft that dropped apparently to the base of the glacier.

No way to go except forward, Rock decided.

Still equipped to use the Rolling Cutter, Rock summoned another silver slice of steel into his left hand. He paused. Even though it would be foolish to the point of possible fatality to charge both arms at once, he hadn't considered using both for matter synthesis. The strain would be far less on his systems . . .

On sudden impulse, Rock replicated a second Rolling Cutter--this one in his right hand.

No ill effects, so--

Rock lowered himself off the edge of the gaping pit before him and gripped the wall with both Rolling Cutters.

Although his descent wasn't nearly as fast as it would have been in a free fall, Rock still felt the wind of his passage as he sped down, leaving twin sets of double trails on the ice above, looking nothing so much like quartzite scars on the face of the otherwise perfect ice.

When he finally reached the bottom, Rock found himself in much the same situation as before; a huge room--once a possible storage area--with a sensor 'bot at its water-covered floor. At one end of the room was a huge wall, leading up to an exit from the innards of the glacier. Sunlight, although pale and sickly here, seemed a slice of bright unreality after the mottled dimness of the ice caverns.

As Rock had suspected there would be, another set of disappearing blocks spanned the distance from where he stood--on a dais near the bottom of the room--to the exit. The android wondered briefly as he jumped from block to block what their purpose was. Certainly, it seemed that they were intended for the use to which he was putting them. But why would anybody devise such a dangerous system? If it was a tactic to slow down an invading force, what not just deny them any means of passage . . .

. . . unless you wanted them to arrive?

Rock nearly missed his next jump as the revelation hit him like a plasma burst; no human could make the jumps Rock had made.

Orpheus wanted him to arrive! It was Orpheus' plan to meet Rock!

Whether it bespoke arrogance or foolishness on Orpheus' part, Rock couldn't be certain, but it had been the exploration 'droid's plan to defeat Rock from the beginning.

So much for taking the renegade exploration androbot by surprise, Rock mused grimly.

As he landed once again on solid ground, Rock noted with irritation that his situation had not improved. Although he had reached the exit from the ice caverns within the glacier that housed the main part of the World Water Purification Plant, he had nowhere else to go. Before him stretched the massive canyon whose existence he had surmised already. However, his goal lay across the chasm, with no hope of getting there.

Rock could see it plainly using telescopic vision; across the chasm was a short drop which was visible through the semi-transparent wall of ice. From there, Rock thought he could make out a long passageway with some sort of large robot in it.

Swearing in frustration, Rock almost didn't hear the buzz of the motor below him.

With a near jump of surprise, Rock looked down off the edge of the chasm to see a group of transport robots hovering in midair. Their flat tops were usually meant to carry ton-plus loads of equipment across short distances, but Rock was sure that it would hold him for a considerably longer time.

Switching to his plasma buster in the weapons subdirectory, Rock took a leap of faith from the cliff's edge, hoping that none of the transports would move.

They did.

Rock barely caught the edge of the nearest one as it moved away from him, nearly upending the whole thing and hurling the pair of them into the canyon below. As the transport robot's gyroscopic system compensated for the sudden increase in pressure on its left side, Rock had to swing his feet out to avoid having his legs cut off the by the whirling blades of the helicopter-like transport.

The transports had scattered across the canyon now, hovering in seemingly random patterns the length of the canyon from where Rock now stood atop one transport to the gap in the ice that he knew he must reach.

Perhaps Orpheus was controlling them via remote . . .

The thought would have made Rock shiver, had he been human. Of course, he reflected wryly as he prepared to leap to the next transport, if he were human, he'd already be shivering in the Arctic cold.

The journey across the canyon was fairly short and uneventful for Rock, besides the nasty surprise that each of the transports had been modified to include a plasma cannon on each of its four cardinal compass points. That shock had cost Rock several units of operating power.

He reached the long passageway he had seen, and sure enough, it was occupied by a massive, though not unfamiliar robot. Rock had just recently encounter one of the exact same kind--albiet painted a different color.

The LighTech trash compactor 'bot took a massive leap forward, and this time, Rock knew he would have no chance of escape.

He braced himself and fired a blast of white-hot plasma . . .

* * * * *

Iceman stood in half shock.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "And what do you think you're doing with that key?"

"This key?" The dark figure at the end of the room whistled a jaunty tune that was apparently tailored to get on one's nerves. "I just found it lying around. Want it?"

Iceman took another step forward, somehow unable to distinguish the appearance of the person at the end of the room.

"Listen, human, if you think--" The Antarctic exploration androbot cut himself short as his optical scanners realized the impossible. "Y-you're a robot!"

The figure took a step forward, the golden gleam of something long and fluttery flashing in the artificial gloom that surrounded it. "I think I'll just take it back to Dr. Wily," the figure said.

"Through the shield?" Iceman laughed. "You must be one of Dr. Light's pets--nothing else could be so--"

The robot disappeared in a flash of crimson, teleporting through the shield that surrounded the city.

Iceman stood in silence for several minutes before loosing invective to the Antarctic wind.

Then Rockman arrived.

* * * * *

A handful of seconds slipped by in silence while the android and the androbot sized one another up.

Iceman was the first to speak. The scorn that had always tempered his voice now seemed terribly amplified to Rock. It was the same as the others; a warped reflection of the androbot he had once known and called friend.

"Nice armor," Iceman snapped. "You'll need it."

"Save it," Rock spat. "I saw those piles of frozen bodies out there." The memory was too fresh to dismiss; Rock's teeth ground as he thought of the slaughter that must have ensued when Orpheus arrived. There had been children in those piles . . .

"I gave all of the pathetic creatures their equal chance to tell me where the key was," Iceman answered. "That's the price of defying Iceman."

"How original," Rock said acerbically. "I liked Orpheus better."

"He's dead," Iceman offered. "Only I remain. Orpheus never would have had the courage to wipe the planet clean of the filthy, verminous, organic life that manifests itself like a plague."

Rock charged his plasma buster. "Fancy language won't excuse genocide," he snarled. "You must know I killed Gutsman and Cutman. You don't hope to fare any better do you?" The sound of such harsh words, spoken so lightly over such a sore subject made Rock hate himself.

"Weak fools," Iceman said in vituperative disgust. "As are you!"

And that was all the warning he gave. Rock found himself ducking, rolling and jumping for his life as massive icicles, no less razor-sharp on their tips for the size, rushed at him with the inhuman speed of a freight train.

Before he was touched, Rock managed to score three hits on Iceman, leaving ugly black scorch marks on the light blue parka that the androbot still wore. However, the exploration androbot-turned-renegade seemed to take no mind of the damage dealt him as he skated back and forth on the ice with sharpened blades affixed to his feet.

When Rock was hit, however, he knew that he could not withstand many more hits like this. The razor-sharp ice tore through bullet-proof armor and laid bare circuits and hydraulics on Rock's arm that bled dark fluid mixed with hissing sparks.

A quick, panic-stricken glance at his energy meter told Rock that he had lost nearly a third of his operating power to his repair-systems with just that single strike. Two more shots from Iceman would overload Rock's systems and cause him to explode.

"You cannot defeat Iceman," Iceman chuckled as he hurled wave after of wave of slashing ice blades. "You are weak. Pathetic. I spit on you!"

Rock, through all his dodging and rolling had managed to score only another three hits on Iceman, who showed no sign of fatigue or even damage beyond the dark scars on his parka. The intense cold and the quickly-freezing moisture in the air was beginning to inhibit Rock's movement, and the android knew that a false step could be fatal.

The damn ice that lined the floor wasn't helping any either.

Duck, roll, jump. Duck, roll, jump. Rock was falling into the pattern of it now, and both opponents knew that whoever missed their part in the intricate pattern first would suffer disastrous consequences.

Rock took a slashing icicle square in the chest and screamed aloud for the agony; it hadn't killed him, but the delay might.

Hurling the circulatory-fluid-stained icicle back at its creator, Rock did something no logic could explain; he charged his adversary.

Taken aback for a half second, Iceman had no chance to save himself as Rock tucked, rolled and leaped, landing atop the exploration androbot.

Desperation obvious on his disgustingly human face, Rock suddenly changed colors. Iceman had no time to process this before he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a flash of silver. He dimly had a few microseconds to recognize Cutman's Rolling Cutter and realize his own peril.

Bastard, Iceman thought in his last seconds, using our own weapons against us!

Then, with one viscous swipe, Rockman beheaded his adversary.

Iceman's head described a lazy arc as it flew across the room and landed with a metallic clank on the floor.

Rock blasted several blasts into the main body of his decapitated adversary as a safeguard against any mishap, then stood and took several deep breaths.

Before the horror of his brutality overwhelmed him, Rock knelt and removed the matter-synthesis chip from Iceman's torso.

Sending a signal to Dr. Light to send in a crew to clean up and get the Plant back into working order again, Rock felt dizzy. His sensors performed a quick sweep to affirm what he had already suspected; with Iceman's death, the shield had dropped. Apparently, its generator had been linked to Iceman via remote.

Rock felt sorrow and self-loathing threaten to debilitate him, and quickly activated his teleport mechanism.

In the corner, a metallic roach watched with robotic fascination as the last swirls of powdered ice upset by Rock's departure settled to the ground and soaked up the black-green circulatory fluids that bled from the stump of the headless body that had once been Iceman.

Continue to Gound Zero--Chapter 7
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