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Chapter 8

Firestorm

"That's ridiculous!"

Fireman slammed his fists down on the comm console in frustration. "There's no possibility that Rock could have destroyed the other four without help! You're mad, old man!"

Dr. Wily's holographic image smiled. "Well, this mad old man is your master, and you're programmed to obey him. Now, if you value your so-called life, you'll do as I say. You know that your programming requires it."

Fireman snarled with frustration. "Of course I have to follow your orders, damn you. But you're crazy if you think that Rock is our only concern. He couldn't have beaten my brothers with no help at all! He's a tool user, for Christ's sake! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"And you're a Waste Disposal androbot, whose only ability is to burn trash." Dr. Wily's sneer was mocking. "Don't be an idiot, Fireman. Of course he was a tool user! Now he's a soldier, just as you are. It's not so strange a concept. You should be able to grasp the idea of modification."

The perpetual flame that burned at the top of Fireman's fire-stove head module turned white hot. "Don't taunt me, old man. I may be slave to your orders, but I can still cause trouble for you."

"Yes, no doubt," Wily answered, sounding not in the least bit convinced that Fireman's threat was serious. Now do as I command." The three-dimensional image of Dr. Wily's face dissipated into thin air, leaving Fireman alone in the chamber.

"Bastard!" Fireman raged, scouring the walls with white-hot flame. "Son of a bitch! Filthy human swine!!!" He blazed his anger across the walls until they were coal-black and his rage had subsided a little.

Dr. Wily was a damned fool to think that Rock--Rock--had come so far on his own. A simple, trusting fool like Rock wasn't worth destroying! He wasn't even worth worrying about! Rock was a pathetic philosopher and human-lover who would rather spend his days reading poetry and serving drinks to his master than fighting. How dare Wily order Fireman to waste his combative talents on such an insect!

The door to the chamber opened, and Fireman whirled in a blazing frenzy.

"What the hell do you want?"

A mute 12-KIF held a terrified, struggling human.

"I see. Another one." Fireman waved a silver-grey gauntlet in dismissal. "Very well. Leave the filthy thing here. I'll take care of it."

The 12-KIF saluted with its free hand. Then it roughly shoved the human forward onto the floor and left the room.

Fireman stood with his hands behind his back, regarding the fear-stricken, quaking human with utter contempt. Finally, he turned his back on the filthy organic creature and shook his head.

"Tell me," he grated through the silver half-mask that concealed the bottom of his face. "Tell me, human. How did you come to be here? I thought that all the vermin in New Denver had been exterminated."

There was no answer from the human.

Fireman didn't turn, but spoke in even, measured tones that were more frightening than his enraged screams. "I asked you a question, human. You are to answer. Now, let's try again. How did you manage to come here when I have personally seen all the human beings in New Denver destroyed?"

"I--I--"

"Take your time." Fireman's jibe was acerbic.

"I got lost on the road and ended up--"

Fireman turned with the speed of a cat, and in less than a second had lunged across the room and backhanded the man across the face, shattering his cheekbone and opening up several blood vessels. The man's blood-chilling scream echoed through the room for a handful of seconds.

"I don't like being lied to," Fireman said calmly. "Now, you have one last chance. If you tell me the truth, I will let you go. If you don't I will incinerate you like I did those others in the corner." He gestured to a heap of blackened objects that might once have been human bones before hellish heat twisted them beyond all recognition.

"L-let me go? You promise?" The man's voice was weak with fear. Fireman loathed the sound of it.

"Yes. Robots cannot lie. It is in our programming." Fireman grinned beneath his mask.

Although his face was ruined and he was bleeding profusely, the man spoke. Blood and missing teeth slurred his words. "I'm from Boulder, out to the west--"

"I know where Boulder is."

"Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"Continue." The sooner this was over with, the better. Fireman couldn't stand the blubbering thing in front of him.

"Well, since we're a couple miles away from New Denver here, there've been some survivors. A couple of us still have televids, and we saw that Rockman had been defeating the generals of Dr. Wily's army."

Fireman restrained himself from roasting the man for even saying Rock's name.

"Anyway, we thought to ourselves that if a robot could beat them, then we could too. So we looted some abandoned stores for weapons and came here to New Denver. We'd heard that the Waste Disposal Plant here was where the general of this precinct was, so we--"

"That's enough." Fireman's hands clenched into fists. "You thought that if a robot could do it, so could you? Are you implying that robots are inferior?"

"N-no! That's not what I meant at all!" The man gibbered and clutched his pale hands to his bloody, crushed face.

"How many others were there?"

"Eighteen. That's not counting me. You won't hurt them, will you?"

Fireman laughed. "Hurt them? How ridiculous!"

The man relaxed. "Oh, thank the Lord. Oh, thank--"

"Of course I won't hurt them," Fireman interrupted. "They, unlike you, won't suffer before they die."

The man's face paled. "You said--you said--"

"Oh, please. You stupid creatures will believe anything! Of course I can lie. As if I'd let my palace here be infested by vermin like you." Fireman held up his fist. "Say good-bye."

The man leaped to his feet and scrabbled against the firmly locked steel door, crying and cursing and pleading all at once.

And since he wasn't facing Fireman, he never saw the white-hot sheets of flame that ended his life and burned him into a twisted, hunched, blackened figure that was barely recognizable as a human skeleton.

* * * * *

It was like being drunk.

That, at least, was what Rock surmised. Never having consumed alcohol, or--even if he had--suffering the organic effects of motor-control loss and muddiness of thought that was called "drunkenness," Rock had no frame of reference.

However, when he appeared in Tokyo, in Dr. Light's lab, Rock fell to the ground in a heap.

"Rock!" Roll's concerned voice cut through the mayhem of reporters' voices. "Rock, are you okay? What's wrong?"

Rock tilted his head up. He was in the main reception room of Dr. Light's mansion-like house. Once again, he was faced with a sea of reporters. Faces blurred into one another, and the voices dimmed to a buzz in Rock's auditory sensors. The only thing Rock was truly aware of was a deep, throbbing, humming sound that seemed to come from within his own head. And the pain.

Pain coursed through his titanium musculature, but the blue robot hunter was too drained of energy to make any move or sound in complaint. A grey, static field crackled across his vision.

"Rrrr . . . rroooollll." He finally managed to slur a single word.

Roll was at her brother's side in an instant, hauling him to his feet. "Oh my God, what happened to you?"

Rock realized through his virus-induced stupor that she must think that he had been injured badly in the fight with Bombman. His armor was charred to blackness nearly everywhere, and his face was scorched underneath the helmet.

Thinking of his helmet made Rock realize that his head module seemed overheated, so he quickly retracted his helmet into his skull, letting the blessedly cool air of the Tokyo evening ruffle his black hair. The coolness of it felt like a sweet kiss on his feverishly hot crown.

"Speak, Rock! Oh, please speak!" Roll's voice was laden with concern and anxiousness. "You've got to pull through this! You're our only hope now!"

Reporters were roughly pushed aside by Tokyo policemen to clear a swath for Roll and her burden. Rock noticed Snap in the crowd, and his two daughters, Julie and Bess. Their faces seemed to be the only real ones in the tumult.

Within seconds, Rock had been heaved on the table. Dr. Light and Roll were immediately bending over him, working frantically at his skull-cap module to unseal his positronic brain. "He's going fast," Roll said grimly.

Rock strove to speak. "Vvvviiiirrrruuussss." He shivered, despite the heat he felt. "Virus." His voice was getting clearer. "Dr. W-wily gave me a v-v-v-virus. It--"

"Hush." Dr. Light's voice was firm. "We realized what had happened soon after you left. By then, it was too late to reach you. Thank God you were quick in your work, or you might not have survived at all to even reach us again."

Rock felt a searing pain in his head, and the, suddenly, it was gone. All of it. His meters respectively rose or dropped steadily towards normal levels, and his body temperature dropped back to his normal of 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

Relief washed over Rock. He sat up.

"Thanks. I don't know what you did, but it really helped." He grinned at Dr. Light. "Is the virus gone?"

Dr. Light looked away. Roll clenched her jaw grimly.

"What? What is it?" Rock's brow furrowed. "What are you--"

"The HSL attacked while you were away," Roll said without preamble. "I was powerless to help because of the Prime Rule, but they were beaten back quickly enough by the Tokyo police force. But they killed eight people and stole all the armor that was meant for me."

Rock shut his mouth in surprise.

"It was a planned attack," Roll continued tightly. "They were all killed, but for two. One of them escaped. The other was caught by the police. After they pumped his bloodstream full of truth-inducing drugs, he confessed that their orders had been to steal my armor and--and--"

"And assassinate me." Dr. Light's voice was bleak. He straightened his shoulders. "We were then given a full description of exactly what was to be done with my body." He shuddered at the grisly memory.

"Whose orders?" Rock fought to control the fury in his voice, and felt his emotion circuits heating to dangerous levels.

"The man killed himself before he answered the question." Roll shook her head. "It could have been either Dr. Wily or James Walken. Or both."

"And the man who escaped--"

"Woman, actually," Roll corrected. "She disappeared without a trace, along with my armor. We're back to square one now, Rock. If you can't defeat Wily, there's no hope."

"I need rest," Rock said flatly. "I can't keep this up without some recharge time. You can install this chip while I sleep." He held up Bombman's matter-synthesis control chip. "A 'gift' from Bombman."

Dr. Light nodded briskly. "Right. And we can fix up your armor, too." The aged robotechnician attempted to smile. "I work so hard on your armor, and every time you come back, it's ruined. Plain carelessness, if you ask me."

Rock forced a halfhearted grin as well. "Yeah. Well, it's only a little burned this time."

"Go to sleep," Roll urged. "We'll take care of things."

"Wait!" Rock sat back up with surprising speed. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you about." He indicated Dr. Light with a nod of his head. Dr. Light raised an eyebrow in invitation for Rock to continue. "I've been getting these feelings--half-formed ideas of what might happen before it happens. Like intuition."

Dr. Light nodded. "It's a trait I had hoped to further develop in you later on. As it is, the programming for it is sketchy at best. But now is not the time to be asking such questions, Rock. Go to sleep so we can work on you."

Rock gratefully slipped into the dark oblivion of his recharge mode.

* * * * *

Snap stepped into the room, accompanied by Bess and Julie.

"Is he gonna be okay?" The swarthy Australian looked with obvious concern at the damaged figure of Rock. "I mean, I told him that Cutman--"

Roll looked up, surprise plain on her features. "Snap?" She shook her head, as if to clear it. "Yes, that's right. You arrived before he left to fight Bombman, didn't you?"

Snap nodded. "Yeah. We heard all about him on the news while we were getting here. He's amazing!"

"That he is," Dr. Light said quietly as he worked the matter-synthesis chip into Rock's plasma buster. "I only wish . . ."

"What's wrong?" Snap's face turned stormy.

"I'll be blunt," Roll turned on Snap. "My brother has been infected with a lethal computer virus by Dr. Wily. It's a self-replicating and self-modifying terror that has a secure grip on areas of his brain that will be destroyed if we tamper with them."

Snap went pale.

"We've managed to delay the effects of it, but he's already had the virus for sixteen hours and forty-eight minutes." Roll took a deep breath. "If we don't find a way to knock out this virus, he'll be completely inoperative in fifty-five hours and twelve minutes. So please, let us work. In less than three days, Rock has to defeat the last two Robot Masters and storm Skull Castle. I don't know how much help we can give him, but it will be easier for us to save his life if we can have peace and quiet."

Dr. Light looked reproachfully at his "daughter."

"Roll. Apologize. That was unnecessarily brusque."

Snap stood straight. "No need to coddle me, doctor. I'm a tough man, and I understand when it's better to get out and let people work than harry them with questions." he allowed himself a grin. "I'm diff'rent than the reporters out there."

Roll genuinely smiled. "Thank you. I promise we'll let you know when he can speak again."

Snap nodded and turned to leave. As he was at the door, Bess dropped his hand and rushed over to Rock's supine form. "Get better," she said, kissing the android on the forehead. Then she followed her father.

Dr. Light stood in stunned silence for a moment.

"If Rock were awake," Roll said, "I think he'd be crying right now."

"Androids don't cry," Dr. Light said absently.

"Well they should," Roll snapped.

* * * * *

Juan Iago flicked off the televid screen, and with it, the images of Rock, Roll and Dr. Light.

"So. Chengdu has fallen." He turned to Monique. "You got the armor?"

"Yes." Monique, an assassin and top-rate espionage expert, nodded. It was barely more than a brief inclination of her head. "We failed to achieve our secondary objective."

Juan waved his hand. "It's not important. Dr. Light's death would have been convenient, but not crucial. We have what we sent you for."

"It seems," Monique said, "that we may not be needed to dispatch him after all. If the virus will kill him within a few days . . ."

"No." Juan's rebuttal was flat. "Mr. Walken's orders were clear. We're to destroy Rockman ourselves. If we wait for the virus to do our work for us, he may do more damage yet. Above all, Rockman must not be allowed to pinpoint the location of Skull Castle."

That last order had sounded uncharacteristic for James Walken. It had been Juan's understanding that Walken had intended to leave Skull Castle and Dr. Wily to the wolves within a day. Still, it had been unmistakably Walken's voice, Walken's face . . .

The comm link beeped. Juan hit the green "receive" button.

James Walken's head materialized before the pair of HSL terrorists.

"Mr. Walken," Juan nodded. "Everything is going according to plan."

"Good." Walken smiled at the other end. "Remember that your duty is to see that Rockman is destroyed before he can reach Skull Castle. That is mandatory."

"Understood," Juan answered. He didn't, though. Why should Walken care what happened to Skull Castle? "Sir, is this channel secure?"

For answer, Walken grinned even wider. "We need no longer worry about Wily's snooping. I have taken care of him."

Juan sighed in relief. "Good. Thank you, sir. That man gave me the creeps."

* * * * *

"He gave us all the creeps, Juan." Walken commiserated from within the bowels of Skull Castle. "Don't worry. He's finished now. I've declared Skull Castle our base of operations."

Juan's staticy image flickered. "That's great, sir."

"Walken out." The image of the Brazilian terrorist and his French companion dissolved into a million tiny pixels in the air, scattering like errant fairy dust and disappearing just as quickly.

"Good! Excellent! That was wonderful!" Dr. Wily smiled triumphantly and clapped Walken on the back. "A perfect performance! You're getting better every day!"

James Walken's features distorted and twisted, then collapsed back into those of Docman, who grinned widely. "Thank you. I owe my adaptability to you, father."

Wily puffed up with pride. "Yes, well . . . let's get on with business, shall we?"

Docman's grin turned evil. "Time to give the much-vaunted founder of the HSL a little visit."

Dr. Wily's laugh was rich and filled the subterranean room. "So it is. So it is, my son."

Docman rose and walked towards the door. Dr. Wily smiled to himself in dark satisfaction. Soon that fool Walken would be dealt with, and Wily would not need to fear for his life within his own fortress.

The German roboticist sat down in a cushioned leather chair and looked back and forth at his laboratory. Things had made quite a turnaround; Rock would be dead within three days, James Walken would be dead within the hour, and Dr. Wily would be the unquestioned ruler of the planet.

As he ruminated, it seemed to Wily that he had started this business with reprogramming the Robot Masters to prove a point, but that point eluded him now. No matter. When he had the world under his thumb, he would conquer the rest of the Solar System. Then he would have the power to banish the hallucinations which denied him sleep and sanity.

Polyphemus rumbled in the corner, and Wily frowned. "Go and guard the first ring," he ordered of his massive, stone-plated cyclops. "Don't return until I tell you to."

The voices . . .

Dr. Wily clutched his head as a fresh wave of jabbering, inhumanly high voices rose in an eerie choir and drowned out reality.

"Du bist verruckt, alter Man!"

"Sterb im dunkelheit, klein Billy."

"Wo ist deine Mutter jetzt?"

The voices taunted him, picked relentlessly at his mind until the scabs of reason that had grown over his insanity tore open and bled afresh. Wily screamed and waved his arms helplessly as rows upon rows of metal demons marched upon him rending his flesh to blood-slick ribbons.

"Weg! Away! Leave me alone!" Wily stumbled backwards over a tool chest and landed hard on his posterior. Pain drove him to violence, and the German roboticist hefted a welding laser and swung the heavy tool right into the face of the closest hell-spawned nightmare.

The creature took no notice of the attack, and leaped for Wily's throat, jaws glistening with blood-washed saliva. Dr. Wily screamed and flailed his instrument into darkness. He had one hope . . .

The teleporter! Dr. Wily managed an ugly grin of mad triumph as he depressed the "teleport" stud on the silver rod within his lab coat.

Time and space twisted for a moment, and reality became a distant vision seen through a kaleidoscope of tortured consciousness. A buzzing like a thousand hives of wasps jabbed Dr. Wily in the temples, as if the sound were a razor-sharp icicle. Then there was a flash of white light, and Dr. Wily found himself standing on the ramparts of Skull Castle.

The demons had vanished, leaving Dr. Wily weak in the knees and nauseated.

Dr. Wily shivered and dropped to his knees.

Rock was to blame for this. Rock and Dr. Light and Roll . . . they had all brought this upon him. But soon, Rock would die. The aged roboticist grinned feebly through his delirium at the thought. Yes, soon. Rock would be less than nothing.

"Nothing!" Dr. Wily forced himself to stand despite the pain in his head. The wind made the tails of his lab coat flap wildly like bats' wings, and his wild hair whipped back and forth in the gale.

Atop the ramparts of Skull Castle, a vision of madness stood.

And it began to rain.

* * * * *

Docman plodded down the hallways of Skull Castle.

He had seen the black-haired Brazilian man Juan Iago enough times to make a convincing holographic shell. The top-heavy emulation robot straightened his shoulders and assumed the features of Juan Iago. This would be too easy.

He pressed the entrance request button of James Walken's quarters.

A moment later, the voice of the HSL founder spoke. "Enter."

"Sir," Docman said. "I return with good news!"

James Walken stared dubiously at Docman/Juan. "Juan? How the hell did you get here? Didn't you just leave?"

"Good news!" Docman replied, ignoring the question. "Rockman is dead! Our agents destroyed him near New Denver!"

Walken frowned. "Impossible. My spies tell me that he hasn't left Tokyo yet."

Docman stuttered. "Y-yes. Well, he was about to go to--"

"Game's up, Wily," Walken spat. "Nice replica, but I won't be fooled." Walken pulled a laser pistol from his jacket pocket and let loose a beam of destruction right at "Juan's" midsection.

It passed right through the holographic exterior and narrowly missed Docman himself.

"That was your last mistake, human." Docman raised his arm, permanently converted to a plasma buster, and blasted Walken dead in the center of the chest. Walken gave a strangled cry and fell backwards, blood spurting from the parts of the wound that weren't cauterized.

Except the blood was black.

Docman stood still for a moment, then walked forward and inspected the body.

Near-human skin was stretched across titanium ribs, and the musculature of the body was made of steel. A radiowave transmitter had once been in the chest of the body, to receive remote-control commands.

A decoy.

"A decoy!" Docman bit out loud. Angry, he blasted the robot body into ashes, then turned and stormed out of the room.

And several miles away, at the other end of a set of remote controls, James Walken, pale and sweating, watched through the eyes of one of Dr. Wily's robotic roaches.

* * * * *

Rock awoke to the harsh lights above him.

Roll's face appeared. "How are you feeling? Is everything optimal?"

There was a momentary pause as Rock ran a quick scan on himself. Haltingly, he answered. "I think so. There seems to be some sort of block on a few of my sensors, though. You . . . ?"

"Yes." Dr. Light's voice spoke from behind Rock.

The male android sat up on the table and swung his feet around the side, letting them dangle. Forcing a grin, he quipped, "So give it to me straight, Doc. How long do I got?"

A spasm of pain passed over Dr. Light's face as he answered. "That's hard to say, Rock. We've managed to retard the virus' progress, but we can't stop it. At best, we calculate that you have a little more than two days."

Rock blinked. "Two days? Two days until what?" He was afraid of the answer, but had to hear.

"The virus," Dr. Light answered with obvious difficulty, "the virus is self-replicating. It has a firm hold on the module that governs the Three Rules, and we can't get it to let up. As you know, any tampering with that area of your brain could kill you instantly."

"In two days . . ." Rock's voice was little more than a whisper. "I have only two days to live?"

Roll gripped his shoulder. "We're doing all we can. If you can keep Wily at bay for the next day, the extra time might be enough for us to formulate a counter-program that will nullify the virus."

A deathly pall descended on the room, and Rock stood slowly.

"I see." He looked at his hand. "And if not . . ." His hand clenched into an iron fist. "If not, I'll live out my last hours destroying my once-friends." The android felt his anger circuit-relays beginning to overheat with too much current.

"Rock . . ." Roll's voice was gentle.

"Damn him . . ." Rock suddenly turned and bashed his fist into the table, splintering the steel surface like balsa wood. "Damn that maniac to hell!" He turned on Dr. Light "And damn you for giving me life! Why couldn't I have been a metool? At least they don't--" he made a choking sound and fell heavily to his knees.

Dr. Light stood rigid with half-fear and half-sorrow.

Rock's voice was a miserable, almost inaudible whisper. "Don't want to die . . ."

He looked up as Dr. Light's hand came to rest on his shoulder. The aged roboticist's eyes were bright with unshed tears. The analytical part of Rock detachedly noted how the light reflected unevenly off the doctor's corneas. "Rock," he said, his voice heavy with emotion. "I--you have been as a son to me. I'll do all I can. " He took a deep breath. "Life is never so precious as when you fear you might lose it."

Rock looked at his hands and shifted them both into plasma buster configuration. Bitterness seeped into the overtones of his tenor voice as he spoke. "Maybe it's better this way. I've killed, and it isn't justice for a killer to go unpunished."

Roll couldn't stand any more of it. She roughly grabbed Rock and forced him to rise, staring straight into his eyes. "Stop it!" she ordered harshly. "You can't keep blaming yourself for all of this! It's not your fault that you have to fight, and you deactivated--"

"Killed," Rock corrected.

"Deactivated," Roll snapped "the renegade Robot Masters because it was required by the Second Law. You've acted with courage and justice this whole time, and I refuse to give up on your life yet." She pushed her face right into Rock's. "And damned if I'm going to let you give up on it, either."

Rock took a few surprised steps back. "But I--"

"No 'buts.' You straighten up and go do your job. We're going to be breaking our tailbones back here to save your neck, so you'd better get out there and save the world's neck. I won't have that chance anymore." Roll smiled wanly. "When this is all over, you'll never have to fight again, but right now, the Waste Disposal Plant in New Denver and the World Power Plant in Croatia need help."

Several seconds passed in silence. Dr. Light stood still as a statue, amazed by the exchange. Never had he dreamed that his programming could have been so successful. Of course, he reminded himself, Roll's program, like her brother's, was self-modifying. When this was all over, he was going to sequester himself away with a voice-activated word-processor and dictate notes until he was hoarse.

Rock finally nodded. New determination glinted in his eyes.

"You're right. I can't give up. I have to save the world from Wily." He paused, and added. "And I have to save Wily from himself. Thank you, Roll." He suddenly reached out and crushed his sister in a bear hug. "I guess this is what being siblings is about."

Roll couldn't speak, overcome with emotion.

Dr. Light felt a single tear roll down his cheek as Rock turned and departed.

"Oh," Roll said as she hurried after him. "I forgot to tell you; you have Hyper Bombs now, just like Bombman's."

Rock made no answer but a quick inclination of the head. Before Dr. Light could say anything to his android "son," the midnight-blue steel of Rock's helmet materialized, and Rock disappeared in a needle of blue-white incandescence.

As Roll returned, he finally found his voice.

"That," he said, "is how you are different from androbots."

* * * * *

When Rock landed in new Denver, the first thing he noticed was the heat.

He had arrived right in front of the Waste Disposal Plant, which was reason enough for the heat. March in New Denver always started out cold, but that had been negated by the awesome blaze that perpetually burned in the Waste Disposal Plant.

From his vantage point here in front of the square, grey building, Rock couldn't see any smoke rising from the massive heat-releasing chimney at the top of the structure. That, at least, had not been tampered with.

The chimney to the Waste Disposal Plant in New Denver was unique. The top of it was equipped with a molecular shield that broke the toxic smoke that rose from the smelting area of the plant into its constituent atoms and released only harmless oxygen, nitrogen and faint traces of carbon into the air. That only the heat--not the smoke--was escaping meant that whichever Robot Master presided over this area had had sense enough not to destroy the shield.

Or maybe he just hasn't gotten around to it yet . . .

The thought spurred Rock on to action. The faster he could get through the plant, the faster he would be done with this whole terrible ordeal. He took a deep breath and opened the massive cargo-loading area doors in front of which he had landed.

Rock looked cautiously around and ran inside. The cargo loading bay was one of two on this side of the building. From here, he could see a ladder leading to the upper storage area that was directly above the cargo loading bay.

No sense in dallying.

With an equal mix of haste and caution, Rock scaled the ladder, plasma buster at the ready.

As soon as his head poked over the top, Rock saw a Rotocannon mounted on the floor of the empty storage area. Smiling grimly, he raised his arm. Whether the cannon was set on a timed circuit or just motion detecting, Rock never found it. With several judicious blasts, he destroyed the rotating cannon before it had a chance to fire.

With that cleared, Rock quickly scanned the rest of the storage area. Finding nothing but a ladder that led up to the uppermost storage area, Rock climbed that, too, and dispatched two similar cannons.

Now, however, he as faced with a small problem. He was in a large, rectangular room. The only entrance or exit lay in the ladder he had just scaled, and one like it at the opposite end of the room.

At the bottom of the ladder, Rock was fairly sure he'd be met by another rotocannon.

A cursory glance provided no clue as to the lower room's contents, except that it was another empty storage room like the one he had just exited a few moments ago. Gritting his teeth and keeping his plasma buster at the ready, Rock jumped down the ladder shaft and dropped ten feet to the ground.

Immediately, he ducked. As he had guessed, another rotocannon was mounted in this room. Only his quick duck had saved him from decapitation by a head-sized blast of plasma. Still lying on his stomach, Rock blasted the rotating stem of the cannon until the main gun separated from its controlling circuitry below and fell useless to the floor.

Another quick jump down the next ladder brought Rock into a nearly identical situation, which he handled with equal alacrity. Now, he found himself in a mirror image of the loading bay through which he had entered. This time, however, the doors opened not on daylight, but into a hellish red inferno.

The inferno was a small burning/smelting pit: one of many in the complex. Liquid-hot metal flowed in a small lake at the floor of the room where Rockman now stood. From time to time, flaming fragments of metal--perhaps they had once been parts of robots--burst out of the molten slag and flew several meters into the air before returning to their fiery graves.

Seeing no point in delaying his necessary trip across the infernal landscape to the ladder he saw beyond, Rock took a running leap and landed on an observation platform in the middle of the lava-sea.

He nearly fell backwards into the inferno when a column of flame blasted upwards through the platform directly in front of him. Cursing breathlessly, Rock noted with no small amount of dismay that his sensors indicated that the ultra-hot air was searing away some of his more sensitive internal circuitry.

Rock took another quick jump and grabbed the hanging ladder as the column of flame melted back into its flaming parent sea. Quickly, eager to avoid any similar outbursts from the temperamental sea of fire, the android gripped rung after rung and pulled himself speedily up the ladder. Once he had safely climbed to the level above the smelting pit, Rock took a breath of the cooler--although still hot--air.

Here, the ceiling and floor had been fractured in multiple places, and gouts of flame blasted through the floor in places where incendiary gas drifted too close to frayed electrical wires. Making his way carefully, Rock reached the seventh story of building.

Blowing on his gauntleted hands to cool them from gripping the red-hot ladder rungs, Rock surveyed the next stretch. From here, flaming blasts still roared up from the ground. Several meters before him, a service corridor ran uninterrupted by flame or rubble.

Thankful for that small convenience, Rock strode forward. He noted with some pride that he had yet to gain any black bars on his critical countdown meter; he was still at full energy. If he kept moving with this speed, perhaps he could be back in Tokyo within only a few hours!

Rock's journey ended abruptly at the end of the corridor. There, the ground dropped off into open space, and finally, judging by the crimson glow from below, into a molten smelting pit. There was only a small section of floor to which Rock could jump from here. That, however, was blocked off every few seconds by an arcing bolt of electricity.

Looking up, the situation was much the same. Electricity crackled there, too. It would be impossible to safely climb the wall to a safer level. Rock cursed. Across the small chasm, he could see that the eighth story seemed fairly safe. If only he could make it past the electrical bolts.

"I don't have time for this," he growled.

Taking note of the intervals at which the electricity built up enough charge to complete the arc, Rock quickly jumped to the undamaged section of the floor, acutely aware of the roar of flames below him. Pausing for barely a second, he coiled his steel-muscled legs under him and launched his body an incredible ten feet into the air to grab the ledge of the eighth-story floor.

After that, the next section of broken floor and frayed electrical wires was child's play to negotiate. Rock quickly made his way across the rest of the eighth story.

Now what?

The control center was the likely location of the Robot Master, and that would be on a lower floor. Rock bit his lip in concentration. Finally, after a few moments' deliberation, he walked towards the access ladder that led back down the other side of this level and began to climb down.

"Scheisse!" Rock swore loudly as a column of flame roared upwards to meet him. Acting out of what might have been instinct in an organic life form, Rock twisted his body to the side and dropped the rest of the way to the ground.

His reprieve was brief. Even as he rolled to stand on his feet, another blast of flame rocketed past him, straight through the floor. Tumbling and struggling to regain his balance, Rock fell straight down a glowing red shaft.

He caught the last rung of the ladder and dangled precariously over another smelting pit. Emergency energy coursed through him, and Rock again felt the robotic equivalent of an adrenaline rush. He exhaled several times to reduce the amount of oxygen in his system, and looked below him.

He was hanging over the main smelting pit now. Its flaming, white-hot molten mass churned slowly beneath him. This was where most of the garbage was dumped and summarily burned. Rock knew that to lose his grip would mean instant death for him.

Below him, and spanning the pit, were several observation platforms suspended above the magma-like surface of the waste-disposal fire-sea. If he could drop onto the nearest one, he calculated a 94% chance that--given optimal structural stability of the platforms--he could successfully reach the other side without befalling any harm.

It was challenging work to jump from platform to platform while avoiding the burst lava bubbles and flaming debris that flew from the hellish bowels of the infernal pit, but Rock finally made it across to the main observation deck. From here, the stairs had been knocked out, but an access ladder still hung down, leading up towards the middle levels, where the control center was likely to be.

Rock climbed the ladder and stared dumbfounded at the place it had brought him to.

Here, a nest of heavily-shielded pipes drained the magma-like substance from the upper levels of the plant where it was melted down to the lower smelting pit. In places, the pipes had been eaten away completely, and molten metal poured slowly from the gaps.

The only way out was up a ladder at the top of the room. Grimacing, Rock realized that he would have to run along the pipes to reach the ladder. The prospect was not a cheerful one, but then neither was it fatal.

Steeling himself for the necessary but painful work, Rock climbed up the nearest pipe, cringing and trying valiantly to ignore the sensors that were screaming pain signals. Within half a minute, the ordeal was over, and Rock had reached the ladder. Nevertheless, those thirty seconds of screaming pain had left him exhausted and drained of energy.

Giving himself a few moments to regain his temporary operating energy, Rock climbed the ladder.

At last--stairs! Rock climbed the iron-web stairs carefully, always aware that a small crack in the structure could send him hurtling down to the blazing magma below.

On high-band radio sensors, Rock could detect multidirection scanning 'bots--which meant that he was drawing close to the lair of the Robot Master. Rock was almost sure that it would be Helios--probably calling himself "Flameman" or "Fireman."

Sure enough, when Rock reached the top of the stairs, he saw a scanning 'bot. Before it could raise any alert, he quickly destroyed it with an expertly-hurled Rolling Cutter. He had not been prepared for the accompanying Sharksfang missile, but it was easily dodged and destroyed.

Making sure to keep clear of the shrapnel hurled by the exploding Sharksfang missile, Rock made his way across the top of the area and climbed slowly down. Through the wire-wrought floor, he could now see the miniature river of molten metal that fed the main smelting pit.

It was only a few jumps and dodges before Rock found himself at the double-reinforced door that closed off the final corridor leading to the main control center. He took a deep breath and mentally congratulated himself on coming so without losing any operating energy. If only it could be this easy when he faced the Robot Master.

The doors opened at a touch to the opening switch, and Rock stepped through.

The rotocannons had been mounted on the ceiling this time, and Rock carefully destroyed each one. As he was firing on the fourth and final rotocannon, he almost slipped on what appeared to be a bar. On closer inspection, Rock saw that it was a fire-blackened human femur.

He gritted his teeth in anger and stepped through the final door.

* * * * *

Fireman stood with his hands on his hips, absolute scorn emanating from every part of him.

"So," he sneered. "You've come. You surprise me, Rock. I wouldn't have thought you'd have the strength or the will to get this far."

For answer, the blue-armored android leveled his arm-cannon at Fireman. "Shut up and fight, traitor. I don't have time to listen to your arrogant prattle."

Fireman laughed. "You dare to challenge me? You do remember the Second Law of Robotics, don't you? I assume that fool Dr. Light still has you restricted by them."

"I know the rule," Rockman answered evenly. "Now fight."

"Your calculating module is obviously faulty," Fireman spat in contempt. "If you honestly think you can defeat me, you're so badly gone that you're not worth saving for Dr. Wily. Prepare to die!"

Fireman let loose a massive blast of flame from his outstretched hands. Nearly two meters in height and several meters in diameter, the wall of flame rushed at Rockman, and Fireman laughed again. Such a fool! To think a simple tool-user should stand a chance against Fireman!

It was to Fireman's great surprise that he saw his opponent, limned in shades of gold and crimson by the passing flame, leap over the wall of fire and loose several blasts of concentrated plasma. With a mixture of indignation and surprise, Fireman snarled.

"Very good, Rockman. But that was luck. You cannot stand before the power that I wield!" Fireman hurled another wall of flame. This one was quickly followed by another. Both left trails of flame on the floor.

This time, Rockman could not--as Fireman observed with gratification--dodge both. The second attack slammed home, hurling Rockman to the floor. He cried out feebly. Fireman grinned to himself beneath his half-mask.

"I'm not done yet," Rockman said. As Fireman watched, the light blue parts of the android's armor turned silver-white, and the midnight-blue parts turned forest green.

"Amusing!" Fireman chuckled, "But I can still see you, my chameleon friend!"

A black orb formed in Rockman's left hand. Fireman had only a few picoseconds to recognize it as a bomb before Rockman hurled it. Out of fear and surprise, Fireman blasted several walls of flame at his opponent.

The bomb exploded, momentarily blinding even Fireman. When his optical sensors adjusted to the light, he could see no sign of Rockman.

"Heh." Fireman shook his head. The flames must have obliterated the pathetic fool. "That was too easy," he said aloud. Contempt made his voice steely.

"Oh?"

Fireman had virtually no time to see from whence the attack came. As he turned his head partially upwards, he beheld with terror a rapidly descending vision of silver and frosty-blue. Before he could cry out, Rockman had plunged a massive icicle directly through the opening of his stove-top head and into his body.

Fireman fell to the ground, his electrical motors making his limbs twitch from the now-useless emergency energy. In his last moments, he watched in mounting terror and disbelief as several more icicles formed in Rockman's hands. Amazingly, they did not melt in the fiery atmosphere.

Without preamble, Rockman plunged the icicles into five different key locations in Fireman's body. On the last, Fireman's vision blackened, and his motors ceased to respond to his mental commands.

His last thought before he died was: Impossible!

Fireman never saw the look of sorrow that passed over Rock's face when he knelt and removed a chip from Fireman's mutilated body. He never saw that Rock walked to the computer console at the end of the room and deactivated the shield.

And so he never saw when, long after Rock had departed, the humans finally arrived and threw his body into the smelting pit.

Continue to Wax Wings--Chapter 9
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