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"Explosives are the key. It doesn't matter what kind of fancy 'buster you're armed with or what kind of blade you hold in your hand. Lord Sigma learned that the hard way. A laser can be reflected. Electricity can be absorbed. Plasma can be deflected. But toss a bomb at one of those highly-touted Hunters, and they'll run like hell itself is following on their heels."
--Counter Hunter Serges, prior to the second Irregular Uprising in Neo Tokyo

Chapter Seven

Ground Zero

Docman glanced from side to side, hologram-cloak photoreceptors taking in every detail of the small room. Crystalline lenses flicked back and forth like a nervous cat's tail as the top-heavy emulation robot committed every square nanometer of the room to its ROM.

Although its brain still wasn't fully functional yet, Docman had gained a sort of primitive sentience; it was aware of its surroundings, and it was able to make some small decisions of its own based on interaction with its environment. It had come to identify the tall, wild haired human as its father, at least. That was a step in the right direction.

The robot took a few tottering steps forward and stared at the mechanical roach before it. A thermal sensor sweep revealed a much higher body temperature than was normal. A few additional sensor sweeps confirmed to Docman that the roach was actually one of Dr. Wily's robotic spies.

Ingenious in design and easily hidden, the robot roaches had been mass-produced by the millions at Dr. Wily's command, and had been spread across the globe to spy for him. It was because of the tiny cybernetic insects that Dr. Wily knew of James Walken's plan to betray him.

And it was through the eyes of one his many spies that Dr. Wily had--while monitoring Docman's emulation of Blues--happened to witness the destruction of Iceman. As soon as Docman had returned, the wild-haired robotechnician had flown into a fit of screaming rage. Docman didn't understand; he had been ordered to speak certain words and steal the Plant's operation key.

Dr. Wily had told Docman that Iceman would certainly have taken control of the Purification Plant and destroyed it before schedule if the key were not removed from the plant with alacrity. So, as the German doctor's loyal servant, Docman had left disguised as a robot called Blues to steal the key away, and to plant a certain surprise for Rockman in Iceman's systems.

Why, then, was Dr. Wily angry?

Docman had held up the key proudly; he knew it would bring his master great joy. Like a puppy, Docman was eager to please his master and receive praise. It was his purpose in existence.

It had been a terrible shock to the emulation robot when Dr. Wily had slapped the key out of Docman's hands. All of the quasi-developed robot's childish glee at a job well done had dissolved under the German roboticist's scathing, vituperative rage. Docman had eventually hidden under a table to avoid another outbreak of insults and hurled tools by his master.

Finally, Dr. Wily had fallen asleep in the corner, weeping about the death of Iceman.

Docman, not sure what to do, had crawled out from under the table and sat in sentinel vigilance, guarding his "father." And now he had discovered the roach.

Docman's half-formed positronic brain relayed a few electronic signals, and the robot got an idea. It would make Dr. Wily happy if he woke up and found that Docman had destroyed the organism called James Walken. Docman did not know why his master hated the organism so much, but Docman's place was not to question.

A small smile forming on humanoid lips, Docman walked slowly to a security monitor in the corner of the room. It was one of hundreds just like it that displayed what was seen by the robot roaches within Skull Castle. Trying with all its might to understand the dials and switches which adorned the monitor, Docman began the laborious process of searching for James Walken . . .

* * * * *

"Jimmy!"

Jimmy Walken giggled as his father leaped out of the bush and caught the young boy by his armpits, lifting him up and swinging him around in a circle.

"You cheated!" Jimmy protested as his father set him down. "I said no hiding in the trees!"

"This is a bush," George Walken pointed out. "Anyway, my boy, it's called 'Hide and Seek,' not 'Hide Anywhere Except in the Flora and Seek.'"

Jimmy frowned. "I still think it's cheating. You're way bigger than me. You should have to walk on your knees to chase me. That'd make it fair."

George Walken opened his mouth as if to answer, but cocked his head slightly instead.

Jimmy's hairs stood on end. With the big war overseas, everybody here at home was really tense. It scared Jimmy to see his dad with such an alarmed look on his face--especially after the way he had acted last night.

Although George Walken hadn't spoken to Jimmy about it, the child had heard on the news last night that America had joined the war, and some big dictator in Europe was really angry about it. There had been threats, but Jimmy hadn't heard them.

"What is it, dad?" Jimmy pulled on his father's pant leg. It was covered with dirt and smelled of the juniper bush George Walken had just been hiding in. "Dad?"

George Walken "shushed" his son and stained to hear a far-away something.

To a six-year-old boy like Jimmy, such treatment was unacceptable.

"Dad!" he snapped, his face darkening with a scowl. "Dad! What is it?"

Jimmy flinched as his father's molten glare turned on him. "Jimmy, I'm trying to--"

His words cut off in mid-sentence. Jimmy's heart raced as his father's eyes grew larger and rounder than Jimmy had ever seen them.

"Jimmy, I want you to climb that tree over there and don't come down until I say to." His father's voice was a harsh whisper.

"But--"

"Do it!" George Walken nearly threw his son into the large oak nearby. "Get up there, boy! And stay there until I tell you it's all right! Do you understand?"

The deadly seriousness with which George Walken spoke would tolerate no argument, and Jimmy knew it. There was something else in his father's voice, though, that made Jimmy want to scramble up the tree and hide like a frightened squirrel.

No sooner had he reached the top of the tree did Jimmy see them. There were only ten of them, but that was enough to scare the boy out of his wits.

They were silver-plated and disc-shaped, with blue lights flashing around the rims of their bodies. Easily fifteen feet across, the disc-shaped robots glided along the ground without a sound.

The park was in the middle of the city, and Jimmy could easily see his house a few blocks away from his vantage point high in the tree. There were more of the silver disc-shaped robots at his house, he could see.

Jimmy watched in horrified fascination as the robots approached his father.

"Robots are evil, Jimmy," his father had told him. "They're a sin against God. The good Lord didn't intend for the sons of Adam mock Him."

"I don't understand, daddy," Jimmy had said. "Mrs. Kerzon says that robots are just metal and plastic, and that they can't think!"

"They can think, Jimmy," his father had snapped emphatically. "But they don't have a soul. And that's the worst sin of all."

Jimmy shrugged. His father was a Baptist minister, and Jimmy supposed that his daddy knew a lot more about what God liked and what he didn't than Jimmy ever would.

Young Jimmy was torn from his reverie as one of the robots spoke.

"George Walken," it said in a terrible, icy voice. "Age: 34. You are to come with us."

George Walken stood defiant before the robots, his chin jutting out. "I will not."

"Resisting arrest is a crime, Mr. Walken," the foremost robot said.

Jimmy's heart raced. Arrest? His daddy?

"For what reasons am I to be put under arrest?"

With mechanical alacrity, the robot began to list charges. "Illegal arms sales to the New Frankish Empire. Sabotage of government property. Resistin--"

"How did you find me?" George Walken's harsh whisper was not heard by his son.

"DNA match, Mr. Walken," said a second robot as the first continued to list off charges. "The blood you left behind when you escaped arrest last time." The robot extended a pair of arms, holding handcuffs. "Come, Mr. Walken. Your days if weapons smuggling are over."

". . . and treason," the first robot finished.

Jimmy frowned. What was the robot talking about? His daddy was a minister! Jimmy didn't know what "smuggling" or "treason" meant, but neither sounded like something that a minister would do.

"You'll have to kill me," said George Walken.

Jimmy's face turned ashen.

The Laws of Robotics had been created by the genius Isaac Asimov decades ago. However, the international talks to instill the Three Laws in each robot manufactured had broken down when the war broke out. It was fully possible that these robots might kill Jimmy's father.

"Execution is scheduled for next week," the robot droned. "Lethal injection, as per the laws of--"

The robot exploded in brilliant white flame. Jimmy had never even seen his father draw the laser pistol from his jacket pocket.

Completely emotionless, the second robot began to speak. "You are only making it worse," it said. "If you try that again, Mr. Walken, we shall be forced to--"

The second robot exploded, too. Jimmy was nearly blinded by the flash. Waves of heat rolled over him up in his tree. Bits of steel and glass rained down, landing in his hair and cutting his arms. Jimmy bit his lip to keep quiet. These robots scared him more than anything else in the world.

Without any warning, the third robot dropped to the ground. The smooth top of its shell split and a long, thin silver proboscis slid out of its electric innards. Jimmy's eyes were glued open in terror when the invisible laser blasted forth with a force that could be felt up in the tree.

There was little transition. One moment, George Walken was alive.

The next, the was a headless body standing where Jimmy's father had been. Shards of bone lay carelessly strewn about the park, and deep crimson blood was already beginning to pool around the body.

Slowly, pitifully, the body crumpled to the ground without a sound.

The robots turned and departed, a silver procession of mechanical turtles.

Jimmy screamed.

* * * * *

James Walken awoke with a start.

It had been decades since his father's death. Although George Walken had been posthumously declared guilty of the crime of treason against the United States of America, James Walken had never believed that his own father would be a traitor.

That left one explanation; it had been an error. Somewhere, a robot in charge of the DNA match of the man who had been smuggling weapons to the New Frankish Empire had made an error, which resulted in the unjust death of Jimmy's father.

That had to be it. James Walken refused to believe any other explanation.

And so James Walken had founded the Human Supremacy League to destroy all robots, that nobody else should suffer such injustice. Robots had destroyed James Walken's life; he would not permit them to do so to others.

That the HSL was now allied with Dr. Wily and his army of unholy creations was of little concern to James Walken. When the world had been shown what a plague robots could be, then they would join the HSL in destroying both Wily and his robots.

James Walken rubbed the sleep from his eyes. There had been something important to do today . . .

Rock! That was it!

The devil-spawn who pretended to be human would die today. James Walken's lip curled with disgust that such a monstrosity should be allowed to exist. Dr. Light would pay for that. George Walken's words echoed through James' mind: "They can think, Jimmy. But they don't have a soul. And that's the worst sin of all."

Sin. Unholy. Demonic.

James Walken had found long ago that such words aroused anger and indignation in people very easily. Faith was a valuable weapon to James Walken. He had duped most of the HSL into believing that he was some sort of prophet, and that it was God's will that all robots be destroyed.

The door cracked, and a knife-blade of light fell across James Walken's face.

"Sir?"

Walken recognized the voice. "Yes? What is it, Kelly?"

The young woman walked into his room hesitantly. "Sir, you aked me to wake you at 5:00. It's that time now."

"Thank you, Kelly." James Walken waved a dismissive hand. "You may go, now."

Kelly, a young Australian woman of about 25 years, shifted uncomfortably. "There's more, sir. Dr. Wily sent for you, but I told him that you weren't to be disturbed." She swallowed hard. "He was really angry, but he said just to send you as soon as you woke up."

Walken's eyes narrowed. Dr. Wily was becoming a genuine nuisance. "Thanks, Kelly. I'll go see him."

Kelly visibly relaxed. It was obvious that she disliked being caught between two powerful men as a courier. As she turned and left, the door closed behind her, plunging the room into darkness again.

James Walken stood and dressed unhurriedly in the dark. "So, it's 'as soon as I wake up' is it? We'll see what the arrogant old bastard has to say when he's dangling at the end of a rope!"

The leader of the HSL left the room angrily.

Behind him, a robotic roach twitched its antennae, and in the monitoring room, Docman smiled with the lips of a German roboticist. The plan was working perfectly so far . . .

* * * * *

When Rock arrived in Tokyo, Dr. Light merely shook his head sadly.

Indicating the massive hole in Rock's chest and the near-dismemberment of his arm, Roll raised a questioning eyebrow. "Do I want to know?"

"No," Rock snapped. "Nice to know that you kept the wolves away this time," he said acerbically as he noticed the lack of reporters.

"Not really," Roll countered. "We just told them that you'd be back in two hours. We got your message from the South Pole."

Rock breathed out in relief--an amazingly human gesture that he no longer even thought about. "Good. Is there a team there yet?"

For answer, Roll smiled. "The world's main water source is functional again."

Dr. Light put a hand on Rock's shoulder. "You've been injured. Badly."

"Yes." Rock couldn't think of any other reply to the obvious observation.

"Let's get you fixed up," Dr. Light said. "Did you get the matter-synthesis chip?"

Rock held up the chip between his index and middle fingers.

"Good." Dr. Light smiled. "You can sleep and we'll fix you up and install the chip."

Rock nodded gratefully.

"By the way," Roll said as Rock turned to leave for the repairs room. "We received a televid call from a guy called Snap. He wanted to talk to you, but we said you were out defending justice, liberty, etc... Do you know him, or is it another reporter?"

Rock smiled genuinely. "Snap! I met him in Sydney and saved him and his two daughters. I gave him instructions to get away from Sydney as fast as he could. I'm glad to know he made it out alive."

"More than that," Roll interjected. "He's in Tokyo."

Rock laughed, for no particular reason at all. Then he dropped the floor. His heating circuits had been working overtime, and had now cut out. Rock felt his body temperature drop rapidly. As a safeguard, his automatic systems gave electrical jolts to his steel musculature, in order to generate some friction-heat.

To all appearances, Rock was shivering.

"I think," he chattered, "I think that Iceman hurt me worse than I detected."

* * * * *

Juan Iago was not happy with this assignment.

He believed fervently in the HSL's cause, but this still didn't feel right to him. Despite what he had told James Walken, Juan didn't feel confident of any sort of victory against Rockman. After all, the robot had single-handedly destroyed three powerful Robot Masters. What use would lasers and pistols be against a foe that strong?

Running his fingers through his black hair--a nervous gesture of his--Juan scanned his team. There were twenty top men assigned to this task along with Juan. Each was a weapons expert and highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat.

A lot of good that last part would do them. Juan snorted in disgust. A robot like Rockman was probably equipped with muscles of steel cable and titanium. No matter how strong a human was, Juan knew it was futile to fight against such power.

No.

He had to think positively. Taking a deep breath, he mentally recited the League's "motto," if that was what it could be called. Robots are inferior to us. 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.

Juan believed almost all of that.

He had been raised in a religious family, and felt that the ideals of the League were admirable. After all, robots could not be allowed to dominate the world. Sloth was a sin, and robots encouraged sloth in their human owners. Juan had always been on the lookout for ways to thwart the devil in his machinations, and this was no exception to the tall Brazilian.

Juan was good at what he did, and he knew it. Even before the HSL had been founded, he had been an expert and blowing things up. Now, however, instead of demolishing abandoned buildings, he was destroying the factories in which the unholy robots were created.

That he killed humans in the attack didn't trouble Juan's conscience at all. If the people were merely victims of circumstance, and had been forced by hard living to work in such a place, then their souls would go to Heaven where they belonged. If the people had chosen to work there of their own will . . . Juan believed that they would go where they deserved as well.

With grim determination, Juan looked over his team again. Finally, setting his jaw firmly, he spoke. "Well, gentlemen," he said authoritatively. "God's will be done. Let's go fry that bastard."

His order was met by cheers from the gathered members of the Human Supremacy League.

* * * * *

The black hooded figure held a large axe.

The crowd below cheered with bloodthirsty enthusiasm.

Rock watched in horrified silence, unable to move. He could see each face in the mass of human flesh assembled in the city square below his vantage point. Some face he recognized. Snap was there. So were his daughters. After a small amount of searching, Rock spotted Roll, Dr. Light, and several workers from the LighTech robot factory in Gladstonbury. Off to the far right, Rock even saw Akira Yamatsu--the worker from the LighTech factory in Tokyo whose eyes were mismatched in size.

All of them cheered.

The black hooded figure shifted on the podium in the middle of the square, leaning on his axe.

Rock held his breath as the sea of humans below parted to make way for a trio of figures. The one in the middle was hunched over and wearing a something grey and filthy. On either side of it was a security guard: tall, muscular and dressed in the dark blue armor and uniform of the Tokyo police.

The cheering increased in volume and intensity as the trio drew nearer to the podium on which the black hooded figure stood, waiting.

As the the three came to stop at the podium, Rock noticed the wooden block in the center of the podium. A small hollow had been meaningfully carved out on one edge. Rock had always wondered what it felt like to be nauseated. Now he was fairly sure that he knew.

The two security guards threw the hunched figure down on the podium.

Rock knew who it was before the eyes turned up in pathetic appeal to the crowds.

Dr. William Albert Wily knelt on the stage in the center of the crowd, his eyes beseeching forgiveness. Beside him, the executioner waiting with menacing stillness, the large axe gripped meaningfully in his hands.

Wily's eyes caught Rock's and held them as he was forced roughly down. His neck was lain across the chopping block, and his eyes filled with tears as he stared at Rock, pleading.

"No!" Rock shouted, as the executioner lifted his axe high. "No! Don't do it!"

Either unable to hear Rock over the clamor of the massive audience to the public execution or heedless of the cry, the executioner swung the axe down in a cruel, merciless arc.

Utter silence descended on the crowd.

Rock winced as a dull, wet thunk rang out across the square.

Part of him wanted to rejoice that Wily's threat was abated. Another part was disgusted at the waste of human life and sorry for the pain Dr. Wily had suffered. Even now, the dead eyes stared at Rock, as if not quite able to believe what had just occurred.

Dr. Wily's head, in slow motion, fell to the dusty floor of the raised stage. Blood flowed from the neck stump, and the body slumped over. Rock bit his tongue as the head rolled like a ball into the executioner's foot and remained there, soaking in a puddle of thick blood.

If Rock had possessed a physical heart, it would have stopped.

The executioner removed his hood and looked directly at Rock.

It was his own face. Exactly.

And the crowd erupted into cheers.

"Hurrah! Long live Rockman!"

Rock screamed as his doppelganger on the stage graciously bowed and laughed . . .

. . . and he was suddenly sitting up on the operating table.

Dr. Light was shaking his robotic "son" by the shoulders.

Rock put a hand to his head. By the reverberations of sound in the room, Rock knew that he had been screaming in reality, and not just in his dream.

"What's happened! Rock, speak to me!" Dr. Light looked with genuine concern into Rock's eyes. "In the name of God, tell me why you just did that!"

The raven-haired, lapis-eyed android shakily removed his hand from his forehead.

"I don't know," he answered. "I was having a nightmare--"

"A what?!" Dr. Light's and Roll's exclamation of surprise was simultaneous.

"Nightmare," Rock snapped. "You know: a bad dream!"

Dr. Light shook his head. "Amazing," he breathed.

Roll looked envious. "I've never had a dream."

Rock blinked. "Really? I have them all the time, now. Ever since . . ." he trailed off. "Ever since I destroyed Achilles," he finished.

"Nightmare, you say?" Dr. Light asked. "Not just a replay of your memories?"

With a shudder, Rock said, "Not unless a duplicate of me beheaded Dr. Wily in front of a screaming mob and I just don't remember."

Roll's eyes widened. "That's some dream. I'm not sure whether to be jealous or sorry for you."

"I wouldn't be jealous," Rock said darkly.

Dr. Light coughed uncomfortably. "Yes, well . . . we'll have to look further into this. This is most interesting . . ."

"Is it one of the signs of madness?" Rock asked suddenly.

Dr. Light started guitltilty. "What?"

"When Blues went mad," Rock asked. "did he start having dreams? I'm afraid I might be having a neural breakdown. Maybe all this stress on my circuits--"

"No." Dr. Light shook his head emphatically. "I've been keeping track of your mental state through your helmet, and you're doing just fine."

"You didn't answer my question." Rock folded his arms.

Dr. Light shrugged. "We were never sure. While he recharged . . . "slept" . . . he sometimes would speak softly as if he were talking to another person. Whenever I asked him, though, he just whistled."

"I see." Rock's voice was flat. He took a deep breath. "Well, what did you do to me?"

Roll chimed in. "Well, you got the Ice Slasher. It's a modified version of Iceman's weapon. We went over the visual records of your battle with him, and it looks like this thing will pack quite a wallop. It'll be another option in your weapons submenu."

Rock nodded. "Anything else?"

"Not really. It's only been a couple hours, and it took most of that time just to fix up the damage that the bastard did to you." Roll fidgeted. "I'm really sorry for what you have to go through. I hadn't watched any of the visual records of your fights before. It's . . ."

"Horrible." Rock finished. "I don't know what human sickness feels like, but I think I feel sick every time I know that I've destroyed one of my friends, and that it's not over yet. I hope it will feel different once Wily's power is broken and I don't have to fight anymore."

Roll nodded fiercely. "Yeah. Me too."

Dr. Light cleared his throat. "There's one more thing."

The sound of the aged roboticist's voice made Rock's head turn immediately. "What?"

"The second shot Iceman hit you with. It was different from the first, wasn't it? More painful."

"Yes," answered Rock. "Why?"

"I have reason to believe that there was something encoded within the molecular structure of the icicle. Something bad. I don't know what just yet, but there was some sort of energy signature left behind in your systems for a few minutes afterwards. I don't know if it's serious or just a random side effect of the Ice Slasher. I want you to keep an eye on it, though." Dr. Light gestured lamely with his left hand. "That's all."

"I understand," Rock answered. He hung his head. "I'm still so tired."

"Let your systems recharge some more," Roll urged. "Go to your room and sleep."

"What about the reporters?" Rock's acidic inquiry was directed at Dr. Light.

"I'll handle them," the roboticist said. "Just get some rest. You're halfway done, but there are still three more key areas that need to be liberated, which probably means three more Robot Masters to destroy."

Rock nodded gratefully and left for his room. However, when he arrived, he did not go to sleep immediately. He envied Roll her dreamless sleep, and cursed that fate should place him in such a position.

For justice, Rock told himself before going to sleep.

Mercifully, he did not dream.

* * * * *

"Well?" James Walken stood before a groggy Dr. Wily. "Why did you send for me at this hour?"

Dr. Wily frowned. "What are you talking about? I just woke up ten minutes ago."

James Walken struggled to keep control of his temper. The deterioration of the man's mental state was pathetic. "My assistant received a video message from you stating that you wanted to see me right way."

Dr. Wily opened his mouth to protest. "I never--" He stopped. Understanding dawned on his face. "Oh. All right, then. I see."

Whatever the hell that means, James Walken thought to himself.

"So, what was it that was so important?" Walken demanded.

Wily frowned. "Don't use that tone of voice with me, James. You might think I'm mad, but I still have power, and that's all that counts. Oh, don't look so surprised; I have spybots all over this castle. Did you think that any move you made wasn't being watched?"

"I see." Walken's face was a mask. "And what do you intend to do?"

"Nothing, at the moment," Dr. Wily answered. "But know this; that expedition you sent out to destroy Rockman is a wasted effort."

Walken's jaw tightened. "They will succeed."

"You're impossibly stupid." Dr. Wily waved a hand in dismissal of Walken's statement. "I meant that Rockman will be dead before your men can reach him."

The leader of the Human Supremacy League smirked. "Three of your highly-touted generals failed to kill that pretender-to-humanity. I think you will fail to destroy him with the other three."

Dr. Wily, rather than launching himself at the other man as Walken might have expected, laughed. It was a deep laugh that rose in timbre and intensity until it was shrill, piercing siren that hurt Walken's ears.

And suddenly Wily stopped and glared lasers at Walken. "You idiot. Don't you think I know that? I made safeguards against it. You may say I'm mad, but I'm not stupid. I sent Docman to New Shirewick just before Iceman was destroyed. Iceman's matter-synthesis module, though he didn't know it, was slightly modified by an undetectable beam from Docman."

Walken was genuinely impressed and interested. "Go on."

"When he fired his special weapon, the ice would constructed in such a way that it's molecular structure would be able to carry a certain energy signal into Rockman's systems."

"A virus," Walken guessed.

"A very potent one," Wily agreed. "It will render all of his systems useless within seventy-two hours."

"But Dr. Light will discover it and erase it," Walken objected.

A snake-like grin crept across Dr. Wily's weathered features. "I think not. The virus is bonded to Rockman's primary module. Specifically, it's bonded to the Three Rules of Robotics, a section of Rock's brain that Tom would ever think to tamper with."

"And there's no way that Rockman can shake this virus?" Walken felt hope creeping into his heart.

Dr. Wily snorted. "None. I bonded it to the Second Law: 'A robot must protect its own existence.' If--by some error in Tom's hard-coded progamming--he fails to protect his own existence to the extent that the Second Law can be considered broken, then he will inevitably die anyway, and breaking the Second Law is the only way to dissolve the virus's program."

James Walken smiled. "You devious son of a bitch."

Dr. Wily clapped him on the back. "I'm sorry you were disturbed in the night."

Walken made no answer, but left the lab. Dr. Wily's expression suddenly turned icy cold as the lab's doors closed behind the leader of the HSL. "And we'll see who shall dangle at the end of the rope when this is over," he snapped. Then he turned to the back of the lab, where Docman stood.

"What have you been up to?" he demanded.

* * * * *

Chengdu, New China had never been scenic.

During the Third World War, the entire city had been converted into a sort of giant munitions factory for China, which had been allied with the New Frankish Empire. Because Chengdu sat at the base of a large mountain range and directly over several large veins of iron in the Earth's crust, a mining industry had been strong there ever since the end of the Third World War.

It was no surprise to anybody who paid attention to that sort of thing when Chengdu had been chosen for the location of the Global Mining Industry Complex, dominated by a large central tower.

Rock had expected that if Wily had placed a guard on Nokaneng, he would be doubly sure to place at least one Robot Master in charge of Chengdu, so that had been the next place he'd come.

At first, he didn't see any real difference. The sky was still a pale blue; it seemed to have been partially bleached of its color by the poisonous chemicals spit into the air by the hundreds of industrial plants in the city. Even treeborgs had a hard time surviving here. The only ones Rock could see were large, cylindrical ones plated with iron almost entirely. There were no leaves to be seen; only large, rusted iron orbs atop the huge trunks.

Rock shook his head. Millions of workers had once lived here, and now it was deserted. Rock hoped that most of them had escaped before they were killed, but he knew that it was unlikely.

He had teleported down fairly close to the Global Mining Tower, and decided that it was as good a place as any to begin his search for the rogue Robot Master. None of the previous three had been difficult to find, though getting to their lairs had been a challenge.

Squinting his eyes to avoid momentary optical overload from the glare of the sun, Rock scanned the area. This area had been in Dr. Wily's control for more than a week, so the android surmised that security would be even tighter here than in Iceman's demesne. Sure enough, Rock saw immediate signs of fortification around the tower.

For one thing, several chasms had been opened around the tower, encircling the structure as bottomless moats. Heavy construction material and/or explosives would have been necessary for the depth of the moats. Rock frowned. He'd already faced a Heracles model, but that was no guarantee that there would not be another here.

Beyond the concentric rings that were the chasms, Rock could see that the lower levels of the tower had been built up. Ladders, bricks and sheets of steel all hung from the sides of the tower, with the appearance of a cancerous growth on the otherwise perfect symmetry of the white edifice.

Sulfurous smoke drifted by in clouds. Rock curled his lip. It was this kind of poison that had brought mankind to the brink of destruction not fifty years ago. The smell of it alone was enough to set off alarms in Rock's internal cleansing system.

"No point in waiting around," Rock muttered, starting towards the tower.

He had broken Wily's power in three places. Three out of six. It didn't take Rock's supercomputer brain to calculate that he was already halfway done with his task; beyond destroying Wily's six generals, his only other concern was to find Dr. Wily himself and bring him to the authorities for justice.

Justice . . .

The concept was a farce, and Rock knew it. Was it justice to destroy the Robot Masters? Certainly, they caused unforgivable injury to the human race and murdered countless people. Still, destruction didn't cancel destruction.

In a way, Rock felt sorry for his opponents; they had not always been this way. The Robot Masters that Rock hunted were merely pawns in Wily's bid for world domination, and, in truth, were enslaved by their programming. They were no more than weapons in a war whose stakes were unimaginably high.

Would it be justice to melt down the gun that killed a bank teller in a robbery? In truth, the robber was to blame--not the gun. And in the same way, Dr. Wily was to blame for the death that Rock had already witnessed, and would doubtless encounter again.

Anger abruptly swelled up in Rock. Damn him! Damn that traitor! What had anybody ever done to Dr. Wily that the German robotechnician should make such a strike at his fellow men? Had Rock been human, he knew that his first choice would be to kill Wily, but his programming prevented him from that.

Rock wouldn't have changed that, even if he had the power, but the seeming futility of his struggle enraged him.

And then, even the rage faded away, to be replaced with bitter frustration and sadness. Even Dr. Wily wasn't fully responsible for his own actions; it had been the teleporter that had destroyed his sanity and made him into the monster that controlled the Robot Masters.

Brushing the thoughts angrily away, Rock found himself at the edge of the first chasm. Rubble and debris made a kind of staircase up to the edge of the seemingly endless drop. Rock stood still.

The wind howled across the chasms, resulting in a deep-voiced, discordant choir with a deeply unsettling effect. More haze and pollution-spawned smoke drifted by as Rock waited. He wasn't quite sure what it was that had stopped him from walking up the "stairs," but something definitely told him not to move yet.

Intuition?

It was the second time he'd experienced such a feeling, and it vaguely disturbed Rock. He'd forgotten to ask Dr. Light about the subject, and cursed inwardly. It was picosecond later that Rock realized that his memory was perfect, and that it should have been impossible to forget.

Alarmed, Rock ran a virus scan on himself, but could detect nothing.

A sudden sense of dizziness wept over Rock. That is to say, his gyroscopic laser system that helped him to keep his frame balanced malfunctioned slightly, and Rock found himself teetering on his feet.

Sure now that he had suffered some damage, Rock scanned himself again, but to no effect, but for the dizziness again.

Perplexed, Rock pondered the situation. If he were afflicted with a virus, and his scanners hadn't detected it, the only explanation was that the virus had affected his scanning program. The scanning program was an integral part of his overall program, located in priority higher than almost everything except for . . .

Rock's blood would have run cold if he's been human.

Everything except for the Three Laws.

"No . . ."

It was a feeble whisper soon lost on the howling wind and swallowed by the discordant hum of wind across the chasms.

Surely, any virus Wily would inflict on Rock would be brutally quick. Why, then, was Rock still alive?

Unless he wants me to suffer first . . .

The thought made Rock grind his teeth. Fired by new determination in the face of such a challenge, he straightened his back against the wind and readied his plasma buster.

Time is of the essence . . . damn intuition.

Rock took a few steps back. Bracing his boots against the rocky ground, he took a running leap over the chasm and immediately cursed as he came face-to-barrel with a high-energy U.S. Army Issue Plasma Cannon. An industrial orange painted dome nearly as wide in diameter as Rock was tall, the cannon was motion activated, as Rock knew. Sensing the android's motion towards it, the cannon's burst-proof armor split along its seams and opened to reveal a large, cylindrical plasma coil.

Twisting his body in midair to avoid being blasted backwards into the chasm, Rock landed at an angel that would have snapped a human ankle. He quickly rolled and ducked in anticipation of the star-hot burst of energy that he knew would come . . .

Sure enough, less than a second later, the cannon opened fire on the location where Rock had been only moments before. Golden-white energy with more heat than the core of a star crackled and blasted forth from the cannon's main coil.

Acting quickly, Rock lifted his arm and blasted the cannon's main coil, calculating that the added heat would overload it.

It did.

For a space of time that the human eye could not detect, the cannon's coil turned white-hot, and then proceeded through colors of the spectrum invisible to human perception. Then, with a miniature thunderclap, the cannon exploded, hurling superheated shards of steel in hundreds of directions and bleeding foul, dark smoke into the sky, to blend with the rest of the smog.

Rock breathed a quick sigh of relief. Heavy plasma cannons were nothing to be toyed with.

Before Rock could make any move to rise, a silver football-shaped object blasted out of the chasm and rose several meters into the air. Rock tracked it with a growing sense of anger. It was an Arabian "fist" bomb!

The "fist" exploded in mid-air and hurled eight main sections on a three-dimensional axis. Rock ducked and covered his head to avoid them, and quickly stood once the attack had passed. So far, there had been no robots in evidence. Well, fine. He preferred automated weapons to thinking robots anyway; it made his battle less difficult.

He leaped to the top o the stair-formation and scanned the area.

So. Three more chasms to clear. He could see over them from his vantage point atop the stair-step structure. Beyond that, there seemed to be a ruined greeting hall of some kind. Rock couldn't see clearly to the bottom of it for the patches of ceiling which still remained. Still, he guessed that they would be full of various sentries.

Beyond that, the tower itself rose into the sky. Rock could see cancerous additions to the tower; sharpened steel stakes jutted from several places, and he was sure he could detect a myriad of different cannons.

Fine. He'd gotten through more heavily-guarded places.

Forcing himself to move quickly, Rock played a deadly game of hopscotch as he leaped over each chasm, avoiding flying bombs and plasma bursts from the mounted cannons. It was hard work, but quick. As long as he could keep himself moving in a pattern, he knew that the danger would be minimal.

At least relatively.

Landing from his last jump, Rock found himself on the hole-patched roof of the ruined reception hall.

As he had suspected, he could see trouble below, in the form of two multidirectional U.S. Army Rotocannons. As powerful as the Heavy Plasma Cannons Rock had encounted earlier, these could twist on a horizontal axis and fire a burst of up to twenty plasma shots at a time, in as many directions. Such power required massive power cells beneath, which meant that below the room must be several dugouts with the cells housed in them.

Unlike the Heavy Cannons, the rotocannons were set on a timed cycle, and not triggered by motion or pressure plates. Rock quickly determined their timing cycle and leaped across the stable portions of the once-roof to reach a fire-escape.

Climbing up it, he was faced with a mess.

The large room had once been a lounge of some sort. Now, however, it had been dominated by four large heavy Plasma Cannons. The roof of the room had been blown away, leaving only a small patch that was attached to the rest of the displaced fire escape, the steel of which had been torn like paper and placed several meters to the left of Rock.

On the floor of the roof, sharpened steel stakes ensured that any fall would be a disastrous one. Rock cursed quietly and quickly climbed to get as far away as he could from this nightmare of a room.

One by one, the Heavy Cannons opened and loosed their deadly blasts at Rock. Trapped on the ladder, there was little the android could do to dodge their fire. He braced his feet on the rungs and leaped upwards to avoid one blast, and let himself fall a short distance to avoid the next. The third blast missed him completely and blew a section of wall near Rock into dust.

The fourth scored a hit square on Rock's chest. The raven-haired android cried out in pain and felt himself slip several rungs as the searing sensation bit through his armor and crisped his synthetic flesh beneath, revealing sensitive circuitry.

They'll need time to recharge. Now's my chance.

Quickly, with supernatural speed, Rock scaled the rest of the ladder, jumped to the next section and made his way out of the room. Above it, the ceiling/floor was solid. Rock paused and took several deep breaths. Many more blasts like that, and he wouldn't have to worry about the virus doing him in.

As if his thoughts had been a summoning, Rock felt a twinge in his leg circuitry. He forced himself to move on to the next ladder, which would take him up to the thirteenth floor. He was almost halfway up this section of the tower!

At the top of the ladder, the building stretched out in a relatively flat area for several square meters. Beyond that, Rock could see more stair-structures, presumably concealing long drops to the bottom of the building.

In front of that, however, was a 12-KIF.

Its welding armor was a dull pea-green color, and its photoreceptive equipment was concealed behind a heavy welding mask. In front of it, the 12-KIF held a silver-white welding shield.

The kind that Blues disappeared while testing, Rock thought.

12-KIF robots, while mute, could understand several key commands in different languages.

"Move," Rock ordered. It was worth a try.

The 12-KIF responded by rotating its shield a few degrees and letting loose a blast of plasma.

Rock easily dodged the attack and retaliated. His shot scored a direct hit on the 12-KIF's torso. Stumbling back a few steps, the 12-KIF fired again. So, too did Rock. As if mirroring one anothers' actions, the pair leaped the shots intended for them and landed on guard.

It was quite intelligent for a simple industrial robot, but Rock soon was able to trick it into falling into a pattern of firing and leaping. Every other time it landed, Rock was able to score a hit. After ten such minor victories, Rock was rewarded with the explosion of the 12-KIF. He had not escaped unscathed, suffering another blow from his opponent's plasma buster.

The next stretch was much the same as the first had been. Three chasms made an effective guarding tool when coupled with heavy plasma cannons and a seemingly endless stream of the zoomorphic "Sharksfang" missiles (complete with shark's face painted on them).

Fighting his way past the attackers, Rock reached another fire escape, and quickly climbed.

Got to move faster! Rock gritted his teeth. The longer he took, the more chance that the virus would overtake him before he could reach Dr. Light for repairs.

A large, plaza-like room stretched below him, lined with sensor 'bots and rotocannons. Rock blessedly made quick time across the blackened patches of the concrete roof not destroyed by plasma fire. Once, upon looking down, Rock saw a pile of blackened human bones.

His jaw clenched, and he moved faster. Humanity was all but helpless against this threat. If he didn't act quickly, it would be too late!

It seemed like no time at all that he had passed by another room whose floor was lined with sharpened stakes and up to the roof of the building. The roof had also been lined with spikes in some sections, but some creative jumping had taken Rock safely past them. Some equally creative shooting had dispatched a pair of 12-KIFs that guarded the roof as well.

Which left Rock standing before a bunker of sorts. He had reached the top of the tower and found no Robot Master. The squarish structure in front of him would be the entrance to a stairwell that would lead back down, if Rock was any judge of architecture.

Impatient, Rock flung open the door and took a step forward. He had no time for a game of hide-and-seek with this homicidal monster.

Undoubtedly because of the virus' effects, it was almost a full half second before Rock realized that he as falling. His blue-armored hand shot out and found purchase on a cylindrical ladder rung.

This had been a stairwell; Rock could see the places where the stairs had been. However, it was now just a long, square passageway that led straight down. A ladder still clung to the side of the wall, as a leech might cling to its host. Other than that, there was no way of getting up or down, short of flight.

Rock climbed down the ladder cautiously, avoiding the cube-shaped Eyebots which hovered back and forth, searching for trouble.

At the bottom of the ladder was a trapdoor.

In no mood to be patient, Rock opened the door and looked down. It was about a thirty foot drop, but he could manage that if he was prepared. Taking a deep breath to recharge and mentally commanding his body to behave itself, Rock plunged downwards.

He landed hard, but unharmed, in an empty room. There was no sign of any habitation--human or robotic. The walls were tiled with blue-green rectangular ceramic, and the floor was sturdy, no-nonsense cement. This was obviously intended to be a safe-room of some sorts.

There was no door, and no way of getting back to the top of the room from which he had entered. Rock swore violently. It was a trap! He had been so anxious to do things quickly that he hadn't stopped to think. No it was to late, and the blue-armored android snarled in self-disgust.

A klaxon alarm sounded, and a red light flashed in the room.

Well, at least I won't die of boredom. It was pessimistic, but Rock was angry at himself and the situation. Somebody has to notice that and check it out.

Within the minute, "somebody" had. Rock found himself staring at the round, orange and black androbot that had just teleported in. Not stopping to wonder how the androbot had managed to teleport inside a magnetic field, Rock raised his arm cannon.

"So, the great Rockman doesn't even stop to think anymore," the androbot snapped. "He just shoots first and asks questions later?"

Rock's lip curled in irritation. "Your sick master has ensured that I don't have time to worry about moral questions anymore," he bit back. It was true. Now that he had this virus, Rock had no way of knowing how long he would survive, and thus no time to ponder the morality of his battle. Now he must act first.

"Sick? Is that what you say of everybody who has more power than you?" The androbot's brow furrowed. "I had thought better of you than that Rock. It seems we have both changed."

"I'm not Rock anymore," Rock answered, fighting to keep the hurt of that truth out of his voice. "I'm Rockman."

"And there is a distinction," the androbot agreed. "I am Hephestas no longer. My name is Bombman. Now, prepare for termination."

"Shut up," Rock snapped, loosing a string of plasma blasts.

The first hit Bombman square in the chest. The dual-colored androbot stumbled back and grunted as if surprised by the attack. Then his eyes narrowed, and Rock could detect the supersonic whine that signified the activation of a matter-synthesis module.

A black bomb appeared in Bombman's hand.

Rock rushed his adversary, firing the whole time. Perhaps if he could get Bombman to drop the bomb . . .

Bombman made an amazing leap straight over Rock's head and hurled the bomb downwards at his blue-armored opponent. Rock cried out in frustration and pain as the bomb exploded and hurled him back into the tiled wall. Pain sensors screamed alert and Rock struggled to rise as another bomb descended in its flight towards him.

Pushing himself away from the shattered portion of the wall, Rock rolled towards Bombman and fired again. From the angry noise he heard, he assumed he had hit his opponent again--at least once.

"You're better than I expected." Bombman stalked towards Rock as another bomb formed in his hand. "I'll try harder."

Rock--horrified--found that he could not move. The virus had rendered him immobile! Pain numbed his circuits as the relays became overworked. Desperate to avoid destruction, Rock tied everything to jog his motion circuits into action.

"Ha ha ha! Look at you, sitting terrified like a rabbit!" Bombman hurled another black orb, which exploded on Rock, hurling him back once again. "Aren't you worthy of my combat? Get up and fight, you pathetic scrap!"

Immobilized by the pain and the virus, Rock couldn't even speak.

How? I can't let it end like this! There must be a way to break its hold . . .

And suddenly, the virus receded again.

With an angry roar, Rock charged his opponent and tackled him, knocking Bombman to the ground. His plasma buster pressed against the androbot's main thoracic cavity, Rock grimaced with animalistic ferocity.

"You murdering filth," he spat. "I don't die that easily."

"Neither do I." As Rock released his blast into Bombman's internal circuitry, the bomb which the spherical androbot had been forming exploded beneath Rock, hurling him across the room with a blast that shook the walls.

For a long moment, a terrible, ghastly silence filled the room.

Finally, Rock pulled himself erect to stand.

Bombman--or what was left of him--lay shattered on the floor. His chest had been blown open by Rock's plasma charge, and its blackened edges peeled back from the main body like rotten fruit which had burst open. The arms were stretched out as if to embrace the sky, and the legs had been separated entirely from the body, and were lying several meters away, leaking circulatory fluids onto the floor.

Ignoring the smell of ozone, Rock stepped forward and reached into the dead androbot's body. Rooting around in the head cavity like a mortician, Rock finally found the renegade androbot's matter synthesis control chip.

A wave of dizziness wept over him again, and Rock quickly activated his teleporter so that he could get back to the lab. The sooner he could get this virus removed, the better.

Continue to Firestorm--Chapter 8