Chapter Five

Reclamation

Grey clouds rained bitter-cold drops upon the bone-white edifice of Skull Castle. Water coursed over the massive stylized eye-sockets which adorned the front entrance to the fortified citadel.

James Walken bit his lip.

This business with Dr. Wily was getting too risky. Already the German robotechnician had proved himself to be unstable more times than even Walken could excuse, and this madness he pursued with his assassin robots . . .

The Wilymachine had been a good idea. Walken credited Wily with that.

With a nasty grin, the leader of the Human Supremacy League reflected on how the name bothered Dr. Wily. It had been a little experiment of Walken's to test Dr. Wily's sanity. So far, every time Walken said "Wilymachine," the German robotechnician only winced.

At the time Dr. Wily made a physical attack on James Walken for using the name, that would be the sign to terminate the partnership.

Still, it was a profitable enough alliance so far; Dr. Wily's robots, having no use for money, food or material goods, never got in the way of Walken's HSL looters when they came through the gutted cities.

Walken curled his lip in disgust as one of those damnable hard-hat robots trundled towards him. As it turned wide photoreceptors towards him in cybernetic curiosity, Walken kicked the steel body with all his might and watched as the robot toppled over and rolled several meters.

Damn robots. They had destroyed his life.

James Walken took several deep breaths. Meters away, the metool kicked useless feet in the air as it struggled to right itself. Slowly, calmly, James Walken removed a laser pistol from his Italian wool sport jacket and vaporized the control chip implanted directly behind the metool's eyes.

With a final electrical surge, the metool jolted in an almost animal-like way as it deactivated. Fused silicon chips and microcircuits crackled with misdirected electricity and Dr. Wily's surveillance device shut down.

Replacing the pistol in his jacket, Walken calmly left the metool, which had now begun to externally smoke, and walked towards the main doorway to get in out of this cursed rain.

By nature, the leader of the Human Supremacy League was a nervous, insecure man. Too much firepower was usually only adequate for him. As the general of a sizable army, he never fought unless he knew for a fact that he could win.

It was, then, alarming to James Walken when he had received word earlier this morning that no word from Sydney was forthcoming. He had left his troops there along with several of Wily's own robots and the prototype Jason model "Cutman."

"Rock," Dr. Wily had raged, and dashed into his inner sanctum, presumably to work on that robot again.

By "Rock," Walken had assumed that Dr. Wily meant the damnable abomination whose factory the HSL had bombed a while back. Dispatching a dozen men to check on this Rock's status, Walken had come outside to think.

And then this blasted storm . . .

Biting his lip again, James Walken clenched a fist and shook his head.

Nothing was secure enough for his liking yet. That was why Dr. Wily's plan for an Energy Jamming Net had appealed to him. The technology behind the process mystified Walken, but the idea was easy to grasp; by setting up hundreds of energy relay stations around the globe in places controlled by Dr. Wily and the HSL, jamming transmissions could be sent in a net around the planet and completely disable the world's communications systems.

That would let Walken breathe more easily.

Of course, the testing ground had been Sydney, and now there was no word.

And that was almost always bad news.

* * * * *

Dr. Wily wrung his hands, blackened with grease.

Laser burns now scored the walls at almost every point, where Dr. Wily had shot at imagined foes and images spawned of delirium and insanity.

His aged, wrinkled face had been streaked with black grease, dirt and tears, and his eyes were bloodshot, nearly to the point of being two sanguine pools within the sleep-deprived craters that were Dr. Wily's eye sockets.

So wrought of stress was he that his face resembled more the facade of his own Skull Castle than that of a human being. Still, Wily decided, the sacrifices made--sleep, food, rest--had all been worth the monumental accomplishment he had made.

Thanks to his industry and that of his robots, Skull Castle was no longer his only retreat. Should he have need to escape this, his first citadel, he had already set in motion the labor of thousands of robots, toiling tirelessly in remote locations upon the construction of more Skull Castles.

Soon, Skull Castle mk. II--situated deep in the Himalayan Mountain Range--would be completed. Another month after the structure was done, so would be the mechanized sentinels that would guard it.

Dr. Wily looked with pride at the replicated guardians of this castle.

Yellow Devil, the cyclops stood in the corner. Was it a trick of the light, or was the massive robot twitching restlessly? Dr. Wily shivered and pulled his filthy lab coat closer around him. The cyclops robot had been constructed of several different parts, all meant to work together as a whole. In an emergency, the whole robot could break apart into as many as fifty pieces.

Each piece was equipped with a small antigravity device and jet-thruster which would allow it to fly above the ground at high speeds for a short amount of time. Because it would have been too time-consuming and bulky to equip each piece with a computer, Wily had placed the central computer within the "head" area of the cyclops, which also contained its sole weapon.

If needs be, Yellow Devil could fire several concentrated plasma bursts from a red, crystalline "eye." Still, although they were powerful enough, they were not the cyclops' best defense; its body was. Plated with solid granite, the cyclops was an invincible behemoth that would brook no resistance. As the most imposing figures, the cyclops robots would stand guard at the outer gates of the first ring of Skull Castle.

Grinning with half-pride, half-uneasiness, Dr. Wily turned to look at his next guardian. Not quite finished yet, it lay on the table, a mess of wires and servomechanisms. Rolling back and forth beside the main body was the holographic projector which kept getting underfoot.

A moving shape snapped Wily from his reverie; somebody in blue armor was in his lab!

Snarling with fear and rage, Dr. Wily pulled the trigger of his laser pistol again and again, aiming the invisible laser beams for the head of the shadowy figure.

Nothing happened.

Heart hammering, Dr. Wily reached for a wrench, in hopes of bashing the intruder's head in, but the grease on his hands made it impossible to get a firm grip on the tool, and it clattered uselessly to the ground.

"N-no," the German robotechnician dropped the ground and covered his head with his hands. "Don't hurt me. Don't kill me, Rock."

Rock walked closer, his limbs growing larger and rubbery as he drew nearer. As if watching through a funhouse mirror, Wily saw Rock approach. The blue-armored android's eyes lit with hellish fire, and jagged rows of teeth burst through the synthetic skin of his gums.

"Die, Wily!"

The voice both hissed and roared, and Dr. Wily screamed like an infant as the blue gauntlets closed around his throat in a crushing grip.

"Mutter!" Dr. Wily wailed, crying for his mother.

The Rock was gone.

Wily hung his head. More waking dreams. It was Rock's fault, of course. Somehow, somehow Rock had destroyed Cutman and the Energy Net that was scheduled to surround Sydney by now.

Although the Energy Net would still be operational within another day, it could not withstand another breakdown as had occurred in Sydney; everything depended upon the ability of the energy transmissions to interconnect, and Sydney, as the testing ground, had been one of the key nodes at which the Net was secured.

Should any of the other four nodes located at Nokaneng, Hamburg, Kansas City or Reykjavik fall, the entire Net would be in danger of a collapse. Worse, if it were to be violently and suddenly deactivated, as it had been in Sydney, the energy could backfire and lay waste to several of Wily's other key control points.

Because of this possibility, Dr. Wily had ordered further security measures to be taken in major areas controlled by himself and James Walken. By now, swarms of mechanized soldiers would be crawling across the major cities of the world, laying waste to everything they touched.

Dr. Wily struggled to lift limbs made lead-heavy by fatigue.

Rock would die. If it was the last thing Dr. Wily did, the blue-armored Robot Hunter would be destroyed.

Casting an admiring glance at his own gold-colored mecha, hovering the corner, Dr. Wily dragged himself over to a cot where he fell asleep almost instantly.

* * * * *

"--ock! Rock! What happened?"

Rock twisted his upper torso to get a better view of the source of his inquisitor. As he did so, alarms tripped off in his internal repair system, warning of imminent overload.

A strong hand pushed him back down to a horizontal position, and Rock closed his eyes again. He had barely escaped Sydney with his life, and landed in Tokyo nearly an hour later. Luckily, he was invulnerable while teleporting, so no new problems could develop in his internal operating systems. However, the electrical backlash he had suffered after landing had nearly killed him, so weak was he already.

Random perception subsystems flickered on and off as the electrical output to his operating system sporadically fed them. Rock's sight and hearing faded in and out, creating a state remarkably similar to human delirium.

Within the cybernetic nightmare, Rock's memory circuits randomly replayed the events of the past few hours, though in a disjointed, disorderly fashion. Since his internal chronometer had been damaged by the electrical backlash engendered by his emergency teleport, his sense of time was next to nonexistent.

For what seemed like weeks, he saw, over and over again, Cutman--no, Jason, Rock's friend and companion--destroyed by his own arm-cannon fire. As if in slow motion, he saw with damning clarity the final superheated concentrated plasma burst as it tore through the lumberjack-androbot's body and left a legacy of ionized air and greasy black smoke in its wake.

"Rock! No!" Jasonís voice rent Rock's aural sensors as it had in the moment before the cursed blast had taken the life of his first friend. Rock wanted to scream, to cry out, to vaporize something with his hated plasma buster, but he couldn't move, or blink, or even truly see and hear.

Over-heated auto-repair circuits labored to correct the damage done to Rock during his battle with Cutman, but despite the air that Rock gulped, his systems were still woefully underfueled. Still, little by little, the damaged circuits began to repair themselves, and Rock could tell through his semi-operational "delirium" that friendly hands repaired him bit by bit.

Slowly, surely, Rock's sense of time returned. Tortured systems' temperatures dropped to yellow, then green levels, until all systems were operating with optimal parameters. As his internal combustion generator began to take up the slack for whatever external energy source had been feeding him and Rock's "breathing" rate returned to normal, the android opened his eyes.

Roll stood above him, her face a mask of concern. Beside her was Dr. Light, wrench in one hand and micro-welder in the other. The latter's face was pink and streaked with sweat, while Roll trembled.

"Rock." Roll threw her arms around him in a very human hug. "We thought we were going to lose you for a while. Are all your systems functioning normally now?"

"As far as I can tell." Rock flexed his fingers, and shifted both arms to plasma buster formation and back again to make sure that none of the internal understructure had been damaged.

Reaching up to run his fingers through his hair, Rock's thumb jarred against the smooth surface of his steel helmet. Emotion circuits flared to life as Rock tore the helmet from his head and hurled it across the room.

Androids don't cry--they can't. But Rock's teeth were gnashed together so hard that they sparked. After a moment, he shook his head and spat out a half-snarl, half-curse. "Do you know what that bastard has done?"

"More than you do, I'll wager." Dr. Light's voice was calm and serious. "We have bigger problems than I first thought. Come upstairs with me."

Rock pulled back, hurt. He had expected some sort of relief from Dr. Light at his near-miraculous resurrection, or at least a pat on the back. But this--? He hadn't even been thanked for a job well done!

Dr. Light reached out and put a hand on Rock's shoulder; his expression softened. "I know it's hard for you. It's hard for all of us. I've just completed more robotics repairs in seven hours than I ever hoped to do in my whole life."

The aged roboticist swayed a little, and Rock found himself reaching to keep his "father" upright. Dr. Light gave a weak smile and squared his shoulders. "One thing that I learned in that terrible war was that you have to act fast and strike hard, and only stop to think about what you've done when the task is completed. Otherwise, you'll hide in a hole full of guilt and self-recrimination while the world falls down around you."

Rock looked up, touched. Dr. Light had never spoken to either himself or Roll about his life during the cataclysmic Third World War. Even a metool could tell that it was a painful and awkward subject for Dr. Light to address.

"Now," Dr. Light said, voice turning harder. "Let's get upstairs, and I can show you what Dr. Wily's been doing while you were liberating Sydney."

* * * * *

Rock shook his head. "Maybe my neuro-circuitry is still broken; I don't understand."

Dr. Light sighed impatiently and gestured at the holographic globe, floating in the center of the living room-turned-war-room. Several crimson dots flared angrily across the sphere, seemingly in random order. "These cities report severe communications disruption. Although their main lines and satellite links are not yet destroyed, the resistance seems to be building."

Rock frowned. "Dr. Wily's doing?" His eyes widened. "He's trying to disable the communications network of the entire planet!"

"Exactly." Dr. Light rewarded his android-son with a raised eyebrow of approval.

"But how does he expect to accomplish that with so few disruption points?" Rock quickly counted the points of light on the globe indicating the disruption areas. "Fifty . . . that's not nearly enough to paralyze the entire--wait." With a half-inclination of his head, Rock reached for the holographic display controls. Connecting the glowing points with lines of iridescent crimson, Rock observed the pattern they made.

"You see," Dr. Light explained, indicating the intricate gridwork crisscrossing the globe. "You see that the lines all cross at four key points?"

Rock nodded. "Yes. Yes, of course! He needs to have a few key points to beam energy up to the main transmission satellites so he can scramble the networks!"

"Do you also see," Dr. Light continued, "that there is a gap right here?"

"Right at . . . Sydney." Rock's frown deepened. "So that's what Cutman was talking about! Is that--is that my doing?"

Dr. Light nodded. "When you destroyed Cutman, you also destroyed the central control module for the Jamming Net."

"How long until the whole thing is operational?" Rock's fist clenched involuntarily.

"You slowed it down when you destroyed the point at Sydney," Dr. Light answered. "If you hadn't we'd already be completely deaf and blind. As it is, the rate of energy-increase is growing exponentially. We . . . you have less than six hours to destroy one of the four remaining points."

Rock closed his eyes. "Dr. Light . . ."

The aged robotechnician put a hand on the raven-haired android's shoulder. "You can do it, Rockman."

Rock pulled away, as if stung. "Don't call me that." After an uncomfortable pause, he said, "I can do it, but I'd better leave now before my common sense overrides my sense of justice."

"Take a few hours to recharge, at least," Dr. Light replied. He pointed to one of the large glowing dots, in Africa. "This is the most likely place to strike. It's isolated from most other points of Dr. Wily's control."

"I agree." Rock ran his hands through his hair. "Where is that, anyway?"

"Botswana," Dr. Light answered. As he spoke the word, the scarlet light flared and grew larger, eventually magnifying large enough so that Rock could see the junction of the Linyanti and Cuito rivers, in the marshy land called the Okavango Delta.

Several kilometers south, in the dry, arid land beside the Thaoge River, an offshoot of the delta, lay the city of Nokaneng, where the red light was concentrated.

"Nokaneng," Rock mused. "Of course." Nokaneng had been discovered, shortly after World War III, to be a major mining site for iron ore and granite. As the newest and most bountiful source of iron to yet be discovered by human beings, Nokaneng had quickly grown from a medium-sized town to a booming metropolis.

Who controlled Nokaneng controlled the world's iron supply, and hence, most major industries on the planet. Dr. Wily had truly planned to cripple civilization: spiritually, physically, and economically. Rock found himself grinding his teeth.

"I don't think I need to tell you that the place is likely to be crawling with renegade metools," Dr. Light said after an interval of silence.

Rock allowed himself the ghost of a wry smile. "It's your fault for making the EG series such good mining 'bots."

"So it is." Dr. Light deactivated the holographic display. "Now, go recharge and get ready to make the teleport."

"Good advice," Rock answered, and trudged towards his resting quarters.

On the way, he met Roll, streaked with grease and holding a powerless laser-welder. Holding up a half-finished plasma-buster, she said, "I've been making some modifications, with Dr. Light's help. Maybe you could use them. We've got some ideas."

"Care to tell me about them while I rest up?" Rock asked. "In a few hours, I'm off to Nokaneng."

"Sure." Roll brushed her hair out of her eyes, leaving a black streak across her forehead. "We've been thinking--some of the Robot Masters could be pretty difficult to dispose of with just a plasma cannon."

Rock closed his eyes. "I know. It took far longer than I'd anticipated to destroy Jason."

"Exac--" Roll did a double take. "Did you say . . . Jason?"

Rock nodded curtly.

"The Prototype?" Roll's voice had grown heavy with horror. "Our Jason?"

"I had no choice," Rock half-whispered.

Roll shook her head. "Wily's going to really pay for this one."

The twins completed the journey down the hall to Rock's quarters in silence. As the door slid open for the androids, Rock finally spoke. "You said there were some ideas about the plasma buster?"

"Yes," Roll nodded, glad to have something else to talk about. "If you could make a physical attack on the Robot Masters besides just a plasma burst, maybe it would be helpful."

"I can't see how it would hurt," Rock answered. As he took a step into the door, he felt relief flood over him. "I think I'll just lie down for a while," he said, weary. "Tell Dr. Light I'll be ready in two hours."

"All right." Sympathy had crept into Roll's voice, cutting Rock more deeply than the Rolling Cutter of the renegade Cutman. "You take care of yourself."

* * * * *

Hovering in the sky, the great gold disk that was the sun beat down upon the baked landscape of Nokaneng. The sun's rays reflected off of the red-gold dust that caked the parched surface of the heat-cracked boulders that lay strewn about the horizon.

Were it not for the blue sky, the landscape might haven been mistaken for a Martian desert.

Arid winds swirled the sand into weird patterns that spattered against pebbles and stones on the ground.

But for the sound of those winds, all was silent. In the great city of Nokaneng, nothing stirred. From the center of the city, where bodies lay carelessly arranged in varying poses of gruesome death, to the outskirts where mining equipment lay abandoned and entire mines stood empty, not even the carrion birds dared to make a noise.

Gutsman chuckled. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . " he muttered to himself. It was a bit of nonsense left in his head from when Dr. Wily had reprogrammed him, but somehow the rhythmic beat of the words appealed to the colossal androbot.

What a perfect day! With his enhanced vision, Gutsman could see, all the way from his vantage point at the top of a rocky hill, the men, women and children he had killed himself. Frowning in disgust, or at least as much as his hinged lantern-jaw would allow him, Gutsman wondered how anything as weak as a human being could be the ruling life-form on a planet.

The memory of the laughably frail human bones snapping between his mighty hands still fresh, Gutsman looked down at his fingers to see if they were still stained with the blood of his victims.

Oh, what a bother--not only were they still stained, but now the blood had dried! It would take precious time to clean his off of his exterior. Searching for something to vent his anger on, Gutsman picked up a large boulder twice his own size and hurled it seventy yards into the desert.

Not yet satisfied, he called over a squad of EG labor 'bots and commanded them to line up in a row. When they had done so, he released his frustration by smashing each one with his titanic fists.

Ah, that was better. There was always something satisfying, Gutsman mused, about extinguishing the spark of life--even if it were only artificially induced life.

He, of course, knew of his colleague's defeat. Cutman had died several hours ago, destroyed by Rock. Gutsman shook his head, once again in disgust. "The strong will leave and the weak will die," he muttered to himself. If Gutsman had a motto, that was it. He despised any show of weakness, and that included emotions of pity, mercy, fear, love . . . he could go on and on.

"Took weak to even save yourself," Gutsman spat, and turned to enter his inner sanctum from which he controlled his robots' progress in mining and scavenging. There had been a message from Dr. Wily's partner, James Walken, that some HSL members would be by within the next day or so to "take their rightful due." Gutsman had vowed that if any of the humans disturbed his robots, he would kill every last one of those pathetic organic creatures.

So absorbed in his own thoughts was Gutsman that he didn't notice the needle of lapis fire which stabbed down through the sky and left a defiant, blue figure in the middle of the desert.

* * * * *

Rock could smell death the moment he landed, and it sickened him.

All around him spread the desert, interrupted only by a shining silver thread in the distance that was the River Thaoge. To the north was the city of Nokaneng, hunched in its dark chaos over the clean golden desert like a cancerous growth, waiting to send its winds of plague and death out upon the rest of the world.

Rock did a quick scan and discovered several metools hidden under the sand for a radius of several hundreds of meters, waiting to burst out and fire upon anybody who walked near them. Beyond them by almost half a kilometer was a large construction site, where, before the strike of Dr. Wily's renegade robots, a mine shaft had apparently just been opened.

Checking his energy meter to make sure that none of the bars had flickered to black during his journey from Tokyo, Rock was relieved to find that he was operating well within specified parameters.

Before he had left, Rock had also analyzed the likelihood of which type of Robot Master would be in charge here. After careful calculation, he surmised that due to the harsh sandstorms and heat, as well as the possibility of falling rocks in mine shafts, the most likely Robot masters he would find guarding the place would be Fireman models, Bombman models, or Gutsman models.

Since all were equally discomforting for him to think about, he merely charged his plasma buster and hoped for the best, twisting his lip in wry humor at how human he already acted, having lived among them for less than a year.

The first metool erupted from the sand in an explosion of plasma bursts and scattered pebbles.

Rock had to drop to one knee to avoid the triple-spray of superheated matter that sizzled over his head, and loosed a quick bolt of his own plasma right between the photoreceptors of the renegade metool.

Not stopping to even shield his eyes from the explosion, Rock dashed across the area with the lowest concentration of submerged metools and leaped into the air as a shower of plasma-bolts rocketed past him. Out of close to thirty shots fired by the metools, only two struck home.

Still, that was too many for Rock's liking. Avoiding the metools as best he could, Rock soon found himself playing a demented game of hide-and-seek behind desert boulders. As soon as he saw a metool from around his boulder, Rock would blast it and then run quickly to another boulder while the remaining metools concentrated their attack on the boulder which Rock had just left.

As he fell into the rhythm of it--shoot, duck, run, shoot, duck, run--Rock began to feel like a cowboy from the old western 2-D movies, fighting bandits, reclaiming the honest citizens' town from the evil bandits.

"Some reclamation," he muttered as he ducked a metool's fireball. "I can't even get to the city yet!"

Thankful that metools were not known for their problem-solving capabilities, Rock finally disposed of the last of his robotic pursuers and turned towards the city. His fusion-generator was nowhere near over-reaction point yet, but he had already gained five black counters on his meter.

Swearing in Japanese, Rock took several quick steps towards the construction site. If he could take a shortcut through there, maybe nobody would notice him slipping into the city until it was too late to stop him!

Liking the idea, the raven-haired android picked his way across broken railroad ties and shattered steel until he reached a large, man-sized rise in the stone. After a moment's thought, Rock determined that it must have been one of the large blocks of granite excavated from the mine shaft that never got taken away.

Leaping onto the top of it, Rock nearly lost his balance and fell backward as he came nearly face-to-face with a metool, perched atop the block and already prepared to fire. Only Rock's quick reflexes saved him from further damage.

Immediately taking another leap straight up into the air, Rock fired downward at the metool's exposed inner-layers and shielded his face from the shrapnel as he landed. Making sure to take a good look this time, Rock saw the next metool before it saw him.

Sitting languidly on a larger stone a few meters away, the metool never had a chance to process a warning message before it was destroyed by Rock's plasma-burst. As super-heated shards of metal clattered to the ground around him, Rock leaped to the now vacant stone and pondered his next move.

Directly before him was a deep, if relatively narrow canyon. Although it wasn't more than forty meters across, that was still far more than Rock could jump. If he took the long way around, Rock might not arrive in the city before the Jamming Net was operational. The only choice he saw other than that was riding the cargo-transport pads that spanned the canyon.

No more than eight feet square, the transport pads were made of sturdy iron, and ran along a set of steel cables reinforced with some kind of pipe. Rock grimaced. Not the safest way to travel, he thought, but certainly the quickest.

Making a strange clicking sound as they went, the transport pads moved back and forth at a leisurely pace. Timing his leap carefully, Rock jumped onto the closest pad and stood firmly, waiting. It would take a few minutes to get to the other end of the canyon, but it would all be--

"Scheisse," Rock breathed. Directly in front of him, the pipe had broken, leaving only steel cable to support the weight of the iron pad and Rock. Surely he would fall if he attempted to ride that.

Looking for a quick escape, Rock leaped down to the transport pad below him. Although it was moving slightly faster, Rock was more worried about keeping his balance after the jump than the sudden increase in speed.

Then he saw the track.

Ahead, the pipe was broken in several places, and there wasn't another pad to jump on. In desperation, Rock executed a high leap in the air just as the pad reached the damaged are of the track and tilted downwards at a 90-degree angle. Just as Rock fell back down, with hopes of catching the wire and hand-over-hand pulling himself across, the platform righted itself again, and Rock landed with a shudder.

Too flooded with relief to reflect on the stupidity of his near-fatal leap, Rock noted the further damaged sections ahead. With practice, he became adept at leaping off of the pad when it gave and landing on it just as it righted itself again, and after several nerve-shattering minutes, Rock arrived at the far end of the canyon.

More blocks of solid granite lay piled high ahead--another challenge for Rock. But, more immediately, he heard a familiar buzzing sound. Charging his plasma-buster, Rock ducked and rolled as a DRIM-13 dropped from the sky.

With a judicious blast and some luck, Rock managed to disintegrate the surveillance 'bot before it could do him any damage, but he knew from previous experience that one rarely found DRIM's by themselves. It was usually more useful to send out about four of them.

Sure enough, Rock spotted the rest, pursuing him from across the canyon.

Hoping to confuse them, Rock fired off a round of random plasma-bursts and then headed for the monolithic blocks that made up a sort of giza-wall. Throwing himself into a crack between the stones, he listened as the DRIMs, having lost visual contact with their target, retreated.

Wedged in between the rocks, Rock contemplated his next move. He did not know where the actual entrance to the mine shaft lay, but it couldn't be far. He shook his head slowly, trying to visualize the surrounding area and the likeliest place for the Robot Master in charge to be stationed.

Although it would be more logical to proceed directly to the center of Nokaneng, where the Energy Net would most likely be anchored, something kept nagging at Rock to keep on his course through the mine shaft.

Intuition? He blinked. Could an android like himself have a so-called "gut feeling?" Remembering to bring the subject up to Dr. Light if he returned from this mission, Rock pushed his feet against opposite sides of the crack in the stone and levered himself up into a standing position.

After some creative squirming, Rock excavated himself from the crevice in the stone and dropped nimbly down to the other side of the pyramid-like stack of granite blocks. The way ahead would not be easy.

For several meters, there was no cover: only bare rock and construction wire left curled on the ground. Several large cracks and holes lay in his line of sight, their depth unknown. Far ahead, girders supported a large steel platform, presumably the beginnings of the mining control center for this particular shaft.

Well, there was nothing for it except to continue on, Rock decided. If he sat here all day, trying to decide what to do, the Energy Jamming Net would be up and unbreakable.

Keeping a wary eye on the skies for more DRIM's, Rock was almost startled when he came upon a mining 'bot. At first, it had blended in with a pile or rubble nearby, and had escaped Rock's attention.

Standing a little taller than Rock's five feet, the mining robot was painted a generic industrial yellow, except for the head module, which was a black orb capped with a metool-like construction hat. In front of it, the 'bot held a large welding shield, painted in black and yellow stripes.

Without warning, the mining 'bot picked up a broken pickax from the pile of rubble that had camouflaged it and hurled the tool at Rock's head with unnatural speed.

Dropping into a duck-and-roll, Rock let loose a stream of plasma-bursts and managed to blast the welding shield out of the 'bot's hand by pure force. Blessing his good luck, Rock righted himself from the roll and shattered the robot's steel head with a blast of superheated plasma.

Collapsing as if it were filmed in slow-motion, the flaming wreckage of the mining robot toppled at its full length at Rock's feet.

Taking a half moment to inwardly apologize for such a waste of materials and hard work on the designer's part, Rock continued, hopping small crevices as he went, until he arrived at the half-completed foundation for the mining control center.

With a high leap, Rock found himself virtually face-to-face with another one of the mining robots, this kind the same as the last. Before the robot could react to Rock's presence, Rock jammed his plasma buster into the robot's thoracic cavity, where its fusion reactor would be located, and released a point-blank blast of concentrated plasma.

Shielding his eyes from the light of the explosion and waiting for the burning rain of superheated metal and half-disintegrated steel to dissipate, Rock quickly used the smoke bleeding in great billows from the robot's chest as concealment to travel the rest of the way across the foundation platform without being detected by any other robot sentinels.

Hearing a scratching sound of a nearby robot, Rock took a step forward, further into the smoke . . .

. . . and found himself plummeting into nothingness. Rock's vision twisted crazily as he toppled off the edge of the platform, flailing his arms wildly, hoping to catch a spur of rock--anything--to slow his descent into who knew what?

The blue android's fingertips brushed the edge of something metal, and Rock desperately closed his fingers around his sole hope of deliverance from death in a crushing grip. A second later, his arm was nearly wrenched out of its socket as his fall was abruptly halted. Rock gnashed his teeth and stifled a yelp of pain.

Nearly numb with the sudden burst of excess energy his emergency systems had provided him with--the robotic equivalent of an adrenaline rush--Rock tilted his helmeted head to catch a glimpse of what lay below.

A large chasm extended down into infinity, or so it seemed. Rock hung precariously over a ledge made of now-broken steel "T"-bars and crumbled stone. Perhaps it had been part of the foundation once, but now it was unrecognizable rubble.

Below that, the chasm yawned, with only the hint of ground at the bottom.

Rock considered his options. If he let go of the ledge, he would certainly fall onto the ledge. It looked sturdy enough to support his weight, but where would he go from there? There was no certainty that he could ever get back up, and even less that he could make it to the bottom of the chasm alive.

Still, if he didn't make a decision soon, his grip would slip and Rock's choice would be made for him.

Rock gritted his teeth and loosened his hold on the edge of the cliff. Once again, his inner gyroscopic meters went crazy as all sense of direction lost meaning to Rock but for the tug of gravity.

It was with an unpleasant jolt that Rock crashed to a stop on top of the pile of rock, dirt and splintered metal. His knee joints flexed involuntarily and Rock found himself on his hands and knees, cursing.

Dusty light filtered down from above by now, as most of the smoke generated by the wreckage of the mining robot above had cleared, and Rock could see more clearly to the bottom of the chasm. Two large platforms, constructed of leftover "T"-bars and cement, lay to the side and several meters down. Rock frowned as he recognized the blue-green carapaces of circling DRIMs hovering around the platforms.

Below that was a long, smooth shaft the descended into areas hidden to Rock's view. The raven-haired android blinked and adjusted his optical focus. Was that sunlight he saw down there? It seemed to be natural light, though pale with dust and smoke.

As Rock pondered the implications of his discovery, the ledge under him broke.

Scrabbling for a hand-hold on the unforgiving stone that made up the wall of the chasm, Rock fell. The syntheflesh on his fingertips tore away as he vainly tried to grip the rough surface of the wall. Before he knew it, Rock had fallen past both platforms and into the dark shaft.

Finally, his steel-plated fingers found purchase on the stone, and in the semi-darkness, sparks angrily screamed from the surface of the scoured rock as Rock's descent gradually slowed. After a few moments, Rock hung once again in mid-air, supported only by the strength of his fingers and the rock which they were stuck into.

Every warning alarm in Rock's system was screaming for attention; his fingers hurt like hell and his sense of balance was so confused that Rock had begun to doubt his optical sensors' data input.

Forcing the pain down to manageable levels and taking a deep breath to recharge his system, Rock looked down once again, and smiled wryly. He hung no more then three meters above the ground at the bottom of the shaft.

Releasing his death-grip on the stone furrows his steel fingers had carved into the walls, Rock dropped the remaining distance and landed heavily at the bottom of the chasm, blinking in the sudden brilliance.

As he had suspected, the light was, indeed, sunlight.

He had fallen down a shaft carved below the chasm, which, in itself, was merely a large crack in the cliff-face of a larger chasm. Squinting to see through the dust and haze that pervaded the bottom of the larger chasm he now stood in, Rock could see broken construction equipment and a large, reinforced steel door on the opposite side of the chasm's floor.

Then, as the dust settled slowly, Rock saw the rest of the chasm floor, and gritted his teeth.

Spread out before him was a large plain, blasted sable with ash and carbon scoring. Rocks worn smooth with the force of fire-scouring made a grim mosaic with human skulls and splintered bone. Rock felt the rage rise within him. The Robot Master responsible would pay for this gross injustice.

So absorbed was Rock in his thoughts of vengeful justice that he didn't even notice the trash-compactor robot on the side of the canyon until it moved. Twenty five meters tall or more, the massive LighTech trash compactor was no less a threat now than its exact duplicate had been in Sydney near Cutman's inner fortress.

"Scheisse," Rock swore in German as the massive ton-plus robot hurtled towards him, leap after gargantuan leap. To fall under its square monopod would mean instant death for Rock, and the blue-armored android knew it.

Rock effortlessly shifted his damaged hand into plasma-buster form . . .

. . . or at least, that was the plan. Rock started in half-shock, half-pain as his entire arm flared with electricity and numbed him with pain. He observed through vision made pale with pain overload that the inner components of his hand, exposed by torn-away syntheflesh, twisted and half-shifted to buster configuration, and then collapsed back into a steel skeleton.

So, it would have to be his other hand that he used for a blaster. Rock snarled in irritation at the inconvenience. This could prove to be fatal in combat with a Robot master, but he had no choice but to continue.

As the trash compactor 'bot drew closer, Rock darted towards the door on the far side of the wall while hitting the robot with a steady barrage of plasma bursts. Fighting for breath as something crashed down on his back, Rock dropped into a tuck-and-roll, desperate to avoid annihilation.

Several tons of titanium crashed to the ground behind Rock, blasting splinters of stone into the air and crushing both rock and human bones beneath it. A hailstorm of rubble showered down on Rock as he frantically pulled himself to his feet and dashed the few remaining meters to the reinforced steel door at the end of the canyon.

With the massive robot directly behind him and only one leap away, Rock blasted the control panel of the door and gratefully slid under the slowly rising sheet of metal as the door ponderously grated upwards.

He was safe.

Rock sat still and let his auto-repair systems work on the damage done to his hand. Taking a few deep breaths to recharge his system, Rock took stock of his surroundings. The trash-compactor 'bot had followed the standard industrial 'bot philosophy of "out of sight, out of program," and so had abandoned its hunt for its small blue quarry.

The large door had retracted into the stone face of the chasm, allowing pale sunlight to stream into the space where Rock sat, dimly illuminating the passageway ahead. From what Rock could see, the passage ahead was a square tunnel about fifteen feet on a side and about a hundred meters long. Sitting perfectly still and almost blending in with the boulder-sized rocks which dotted the sides of the passage were four EG-400 labor robots, presumably ready to fire on any intruders.

So this was the inner sanctum. Rock closed his eyes for a moment before standing. Only one arm was suitable for plasma shooting as yet, but time was rapidly running out, and Rock had no guarantee that he would meet the Robot master in charge at the end of the tunnel. After all, where was it written that each Robot Master remained in one place for Rock to find?

Brushing away all other thoughts, Rock charged forward, his buster at the ready. As each of the metools tilted their protective helmets up to fire at Rock, they were decimated by the burning force of Rock's plasma-bullets.

Charging down the hall, disposing of the renegade metools without breaking stride, Rock began to feel like an unstoppable azure juggernaut. His robotic "adrenaline" flowed through him as Rock reached the end of the passage way and found himself faced with another reinforced steel door.

With an ominous clanking, the door grated upwards, revealing a large stone chamber.

Rock stepped through, the power flowing through him. He was invincible.

Then he saw the Robot Master.

* * * * *

Gutsman had removed the dried human blood from his mighty hands with a wire brush, and now waited in his control center, awaiting word from his sentries. In less than twenty minutes, the Energy Jamming Net would be complete, and Gutsman could focus his energies on setting the trap for the Human Supremacy League, which would be arriving any time.

It had been an idea of Gutsman's a few hours ago, after he came inside.

How could such a weak, greedy and fundamentally stupid creature such as the human being rise to be the dominant life form on this planet? The more Gutsman thought about it, the more it seemed that a New Order was called for: one in which robots ruled supreme.

"Robots of the World! March!!"

Gutsman did not know where the quote came from, but he assumed that Dr. Wily had somehow left it in there while reprogramming him. Gutsman remembered every part of his life before reprogramming, but it seemed as if it were all a--what was the human word?

Dream. That's what it was. He had been Tim then, the first of the LighTech Wilderness Reclamation Androbots. Everything before his rebirth at the hands of his master seemed to be a shadowy nightmare of forced labor and arrogant, organic life. Gutsman's eyes turned red with hatred. How pathetic they were! How absolutely disgusting!

Pity, love, forgiveness . . . all of these weak and contemptible emotions were the plague that those flesh-made vermin carried. Such disgusting weakness deserved to be exterminated--and that was how Gutsman had come to the idea of killing the HSL looters when they arrived in Nokaneng.

As soon as the Jamming Net was in place . . .

Gutsman heard the grating sound of a steel door opening at the end of the tunnel.

Ah, good! His sentries had returned. Now he could check the progress for the Net and prepare for his triumph over the human race. Gutsman took several short, waddling steps across the large stone-hewn room and pressed a secret button on the wall.

With barely a whisper, the "stone" which had covered the hidden computer terminal slid away, and Gutsman pulled up the energy-to-satellite-interface program that was his to execute at the proper time.

A sound like distant thunder caused Gutsman to freeze. What the hell was going on? Had that been an explosion?

A second sound, identical to the first, confirmed the giant androbot's suspicions.

Somebody was destroying the metool guardians!

Gutsman flexed his arms and made a gargantuan fist. Well, fine. He would deal with this upstart soon enough. Perhaps it was Rock, come to meet his destiny! Gutsman chuckled deep in his huge metallic throat.

The door to his chamber grated open, and Gutsman beheld the enemy.

"Rock," he growled.

The android at the end of the room was much changed since the time Gutsman had last seen him, but the disgustingly human face was still the same. Gutsman took stock of the blue android's new armor and arm cannon.

"Nice hat," the massive androbot sneered as he caught sight of the steel bombardier's helmet. "What're you supposed to be--some sort of blue bomber?"

"What a stupid name," Rock said sardonically at the other end of the room. Gutsman could tell that his adversary was taken aback, despite his bravado. It was one of those pathetic human traits that the fool Dr. Light had programmed into his creation.

Gutsman shifted his stance. "I trust you've come to make full apologies for decreasing our number of generals?" he snapped. "Cutman was a special friend of mine." It was a lie, of course, but it sounded good.

"Huh." Rock hefted the egg-shaped weapon that had replaced his hand at the end of his arm. "I've come to kill you."

A laugh with no humor in it escaped from Gutsman's voice-synthesis chip. "Oh, you may find that to be more difficult than you imagine, little man," he laughed. The door slammed shut behind Rock as he said this. "Let's see what you're really made of, Rock."

An expression that might have been pain flitted across the android's face. "I am Rockman."

Gutsman growled. "You're dead!" He turned and punched the wall with a massive fist and then, as if on cue, held up his arm to catch the massive boulder which fell from the ceiling. With a howl that was half Japanese war cry and half binary code, Gutsman hurled the giant stone at Rock.

His eyes lighting in triumph, Gutsman watched the huge stone crush his opponent.

That had been far too easy.

He took a waddling step forward--

--and the stone exploded in a shower of gravel and fire. The android that was Rockman stood, apparently unscathed, where once a boulder had been.

Gutsman blinked in momentary confusion and grunted in surprise and pain as his main energy-transfer crystal--set directly in the middle of his chest--was hit by a gold-white orb of crackling plasma.

Gutsman had been Tim once--designed to bear thousands pounds' worth of pressure on his skeletal frame. For all intents and purposes, he was invincible.

However, Rock had helped to design and him, and might know of some hidden weak points--

Gutsman frowned grimly as he realized just how dangerous this fool tool-user could be. Another plasma shot screamed through the air at the Herculean androbot, but Gutsman easily absorbed it with his armored forearm.

"You're tough, 'Rockman' but you must realize that you're too human for me to let you live." Gutsman flexed his huge fingers. "Ashes to ashes and all that . . ." he added, and punched the wall again, letting loose a shower of boulders.

Rockman shook his head and kept up his steady barrage of plasma-ammunition. "You owe your existence to humans," he snapped. "Doesn't it bother you in the least to have become a murderer?"

Gutsman staggered and nearly missed catching a fallen boulder as one of Rockman's shots penetrated his armor and hit the giant robot squarely between the photoreceptors. The vision in his left "eye" flickered for several moments before fading to a dull black and white display.

With a half-grunt, Gutsman hurled the boulder at Rockman and bellowed. "Murderer? I'm not the one hunting down my own people and slaying them for the pleasure of that antichrist, Dr. Light!" Taking a menacing step toward his quarry, Gutsman growled. "I'm merely dispensing justice against your human friends. They're the ones that nearly destroyed the planet through their greed and stupidity."

The giant robot could tell he had--to use a human phrase--struck a nerve. Rockman's face had grown drawn and angry. Large, blue eyes narrowed in anger. "Justice?" Rockman spat the words like a curse. "There's no such thing."

Gutsman could tell that his opponent was severely damaged--the blue-armored android was breathing heavily and hunched over. One quick, judicious strike could end this all.

Snatching a boulder from the ground, Gutsman hurled it at his surprised enemy.

Almost too fast to track, Rockman dropped to the ground and rolled clear of the thrown missile.

Gutsman had never been designed for speed or agility, and so when Rockman came out of his roll directly before Gutsman and pressed his plasma buster against the giant's head, Gutsman could make no move to defend himself.

Except one.

Making a fist the size of a human infant with each one of his hands, he clapped them together with terrifying force on either side of Rockman's head, exploding all circuits within.

At least, that was what Gutsman had hoped.

He never knew if he succeeded, because as soon as he began to make a fist, there was a loud explosion from the side of his head where Rockman held the egg-shaped buster and everything went dark.

* * * * *

Rock sighed, his voice ragged with fatigue.

Gutsman lay sprawled across the floor in front of the tool-user-made-battle robot, the right half of his head disintegrated by white-hot plasma. Smoke had started to bleed from the hole, floating upwards and collecting on the ceiling in a macabre imitation of incendiary blood.

A quick glance at his own energy meter told Rock what he had already suspected--he had only two gold operating bars on which to teleport back to Dr. Light. Still, it was more than he had had last time.

Glowering at the computer console set into the wall, Rock paced across the room and booted up the Jamming Net's program.

Formulating the most malignant and violent thoughts he could into a single expression of hatred and destruction, Rock quickly translated them into binary and downloaded them into the computer's main drive.

It was the most effective virus Rock had ever seen. Within seconds, the screen had blanked out, and thin wisps of smoke had begun to trail out from behind it. The black-haired android shook his head sadly. What had he become?

Although a computer was not a sentient being, deliberately downloading such a potent virus to one felt to Rock as if he were cruelly mistreating a small animal.

Klaxons began to sound in the chamber, and Rock disappeared in a stream of blue-white incandescence, with nobody to witness his departure.

Continue to Underworld--Chapter 6