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Chapter 4--First Encounter . . . continued
Radio activity dwindled quickly to negligible levels. In the corner of the large room, a radio transceiver shut down, its bogus radio signals extinguished. Rock cursed as he realized that he had followed a false lead, meant to trap him while Cutman finished building his "grid," whatever that was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that instant, Rock's repair systems reached yellow level. With the robotic equivalent to a surge of elation, he looked weakly up at Cutman, betraying nothing. His buster powered slowly, making no sound.

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

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

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

"Rock! No! It's--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What have I done? Achilles is dead!"

Continue to Chapter 5--Reclamation.

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