The ground steadily inclined as they drew closer to the volcano, the trees giving away to shrubs and corrugated rock formations. Of the Robot Masters, Cut Man had become surly and frequently complained, Guts Man nearly mutinous, and Wood Man cheerfully placid. Mega Man, now lacking Roll's help, was keeping an even sharper eye on Proto Man, who lead the way with the confidence and swagger of someone who was not in the least bit concerned about volcanic eruption. Likewise, Wood Man, who had short stump-like legs and seemed unable to grasp the urgency of recovering the neutronater, tended to lag behind to admire pink flowers growing on top the volcanic ash.
"I wonder if Stone Man came from this island," mused Wood Man, catching up to them for a third time as the other robots passed under a naturally formed stone archway (Proto Man had already threatened to leave him behind several times).
"Pretty sure Stone Man came from a robot lab just like every other Robot Master," replied Proto Man impatiently.
"Have you met Stone Man?" Wood Man asked Mega Man.
"Sorta," said Mega Man, remembering he once copied Power Stone to fight off five Robot Masters at once.
"I like Stone Man, he's a nice robot," said Wood Man. "When we get back to Skull Fortress, you should play Candy Land with us."
Mega Man gave Wood Man a funny look. "You do realize we're not really on the same side, right? Please tell me someone has explained this to you."
Wood Man stared back blankly.
"You were built by Dr. Wily, and I was built by Dr. Light to fight Dr. Wily's robots."
"Oh. Does that mean we're not friends?"
"Only if you count the robots you're constantly fighting against 'friends.'"
"Why do we have to go all this way with him?" grumbled Guts Man, shooting Mega Man a dark look.
"Yeah, I can't wait to get to the part where we cut him out," agreed Cut Man, his head shear snipping together unconsciously.
"Glad I have something to look forward to," quipped Mega Man. "But I'm more likely to perish from rust than at the hands of either of you."
"How about I grind you into metal filings now?" retorted Guts Man, brandishing a fist at Mega Man.
"Hey!" Proto Man snapped at Guts Men and Cut Man. "Back off, we're all on the team here until we get rid of the radiation dome. If you can't handle it, you can go back to Wily and tell him yourself why you let the stone-bots escape with the neutronater."
Guts Man and Cut Man fell back, glowering at Proto Man.
"Thanks for calling off Wily's cronies," said Mega Man.
"No big deal, they have to listen to me."
"I was being sarcastic."
"I know." Proto Man rolled his shoulders lazily. "Don't pay attention to them. They're idiots. Just my luck to be stuck on an island with three of Wily's stupidest Robot Masters."
"Two of whom belong to Dr. Light."
"But don't blame them for your problems, you and Wily were in charge. You could have brought any Robot Master you wanted, and those were the three you picked."
"Well…" Proto Man scratched his head. Why hadn't they brought Metal Man, Crash Man, or any of the other more competent Robot Masters to the island? Oh yeah, that's right, because animating stone statues for world domination was a moronic mission anyway.
At least, it was suppose to be… Proto Man thought dryly, looking up at the spiral of purple clouds slowly circling the volcano.
Since the departure of the robots, the hoverjet had remained undisturbed by the golems. Dr. Light was busy scanning the island with the available instruments he had on hand, which were becoming increasingly non-responsive due to radiation, and compiling their readings into the supercomputer for analysis, while Dr. Wily hovered over him, stroking his mustache, pointing out technical flaws and making no offer to help.
"You look like you've lost weight," Dr. Wily commented.
"It's been a trying past couple of years," Dr. Light replied coldly.
"Has it, heh heh? Well look on the bright side, you could be back down to your university trouser size in no time!"
"And you're sure there is no way to shut down the neutronater remotely?" asked Dr. Light, pointedly grounding Dr. Wily back to the problem at hand.
"Of course! It was my instrument for both animating and controlling the stone statues! I wouldn't allow any chance a nosey meddler like you would be able to sabotage it. But what still confounds me is what made the stone-bots stop obeying my command, it's not as though statues have minds of their own..."
Dr. Light sighed. "When your work lies in mad science and serving yourself, you can be sure that disaster is not far away."
"True, pushing the boundaries of science has its risks, but risk is needed to be a great visionary. Alas, the neutronater is a prototype, and you know how unpredictable prototypes can be, even ones built from a great scientist like you."
Dr. Light raised his brows at Dr. Wily.
"Oh whoopsie, did I say something tactless?" asked Dr. Wily, lazily examining his own nails. He glanced at Dr. Light out of the corner of his eye. "I wouldn't dream of reminding you of Proto Man's defection to my cause at such a time! After all, that was a huge setback for someone as accustomed to success from rigorous repetition of day-to-day inventions as you. Though it's like you use to say, 'pride goes before a fall.'"
Dr. Light turned to his computer monitor, showing that he was choosing to ignore Dr. Wily's thinly veiled insults with dignified grace.
"Surely you've come to terms with the present. He's my robot now—though I could build one better if I wanted to!" Dr. Wily added hastily with an unmistakable note of spite.
"—But Proto was always a spoiled brat. You're better off without him. Besides, you have your infernal blue twit and his wretched titanium twin now."
"Their names are Mega Man and Roll."
Dr. Light turned back toward Dr. Wily. "All three of them are out there battling for our lives, and I should think you show the slightest concern for at least Proto, since this entire predicament is your fault."
"Who, Proto? He likes it!" Dr. Wily laughed, waving a hand dismissively. "If he were human, I'd diagnose him with an incurable thrill-seeking complex. As a robot, he's a disobedient, disrespectful, sneaking, rotten bas—which I blame entirely on your programming—but he always gets the job done, and he never minds risking his neck to do it, so who am I to complain?"
"You're a real piece of work," Dr. Light said disdainfully.
"Speaking of work, did you design this, Tom?" asked Dr. Wily, knocking on the side of the hoverjet. "Shoddy workmanship, if I may say. And a horrible paint job—why do you always use primary colors, it's so elementary—purple would have been much better—"
"I will ask that you kindly remain in the fuselage," Dr. Light said evenly as Dr. Wily edged toward the cockpit.
Dr. Wily stopped in his tracks. "But just look at those wings…" he said, gesturing innocently outside the hoverjet's windows. "Where will you install the laser guided missiles?"
"This jet was built as a carrier vessel for scientific expeditions. I have no intention of installing laser guided missiles."
"Oh, I would install laser guided missiles, if I were you. Or a sonic cannon. Comes in handy more than you think it would."
Dr. Light kneaded his temples wearily. It was a long day...
The robots were drawing close to the volcano's base, all traces of vegetation left behind to porous rocks. Around them, purple radiation covered the terrain like a faint fog.
"With any luck, this radiation cloud will soon be visible from space," Proto Man observed. "That's bound to attract somebody's attention."
"That's the strange thing, I don't think anyone has ever seen this island—at least, no one who's lived to tell the tale," said Mega Man as they pulled themselves over a rocky shelf. "Besides, shouldn't you be worried about Robot Interpol finding you here?" he asked, smirking.
Proto Man snorted. "Let them come, it's not like they're any better than you are at arresting Wily. And all their 'peace, justice, and international cooperation crap...' that much righteousness really makes a 'bot sick. You wouldn't catch me dead fighting for a dweeby organization like that."
Behind them, Wood Man and Cut Man were struggling to pull Guts Man up the shelf.
"R.I.P.'s not so bad," said Mega Man. "We got to work with them while Wily was threatening to blow up Earth. Enker and Roll even teamed up to deflect the Lunar Laser blast."
"She was with that bot with the spiked helmet?"
"Uh, yeah. I think she even kinda likes him."
"What do you mean by 'likes?'"
Proto Man looked sharply at Mega Man, who shrugged. Proto Man took Mega Man's silence at its worse and fired up instantly.
"But R.I.P. cops are all prigs!" he snapped, kicking a lose stone. "They're stuffy and pretentious, not to mention boring and predictable. I would know, I've fought a few!"
"Actually, I found them to be humble and very friendly—then again, I'm not a crook..."
"He's too old for her!" Proto Man ranted on in aggravation, clearly trying to connect to a mutual-sense of older-brother-protectiveness with Mega Man.
"His model is only a year older than ours," Mega Man replied insolently. "And it's really not our business—"
"Oh yes it is!"
Mega Man was amused at how genuinely over-protective Proto Man was getting over this matter, and even a little touched that he cared this much for Roll's well being. But (despite their similar personalities) Proto Man wasn't around Roll enough to know that there was really no point in trying to dissuade her once she set her mind to something.
"He's just a Robot Master," Proto Man continued.
"Actually, Enker isn't."
"Well, he's not programmed like us, anyway! I barely know anything about his creator—"
"You impersonated him."
Proto Man gave Mega Man a very dirty look, clearly thinking it impossible to continue countering his arguments.
"I don't see what the problem is," Mega Man said frankly. "I mean, Enker is at least a step up from Gyro Man, right?"
"Gyro Man too? I knew something was up…" Proto Man muttered darkly.
"She's got dating on the mind…It's really weird. Do you ever thinking about dating anyone?"
"Me neither. Wonder where she gets it from."
"I gotta talk to her."
Mega Man's own protective instinct kicked in like brakes on a train. "No!" he said quickly.
"She's got to know that there are some real low-life jerks out there," Proto Man persisted.
"Yeah, like she's really going to take that kind of talk seriously coming from you," replied Mega Man, picturing with some amusement Proto Man giving Roll a speech.
"Well someone's gotta tell her! She doesn't always use good judgement."
"She could fall for some jerk she just met, and regret it, big time."
"Okay, okay, I'll talk to her," Mega Man lied, suppressing a grin.
The shadow of the volcano fell over them, its long sweeping sides like a enormous funnel.
"How are we going to climb this thing?" asked Mega Man, scanning its smooth, steep cliffs.
"There! Look!" exclaimed Cut Man, pointing to the beginning of a narrow stone path cut into the side of the volcano just visible beyond a shroud of shrubs.
Mega Man nodded, then glanced at Proto Man. "You first, but I'll be right behind you, so don't try anything."
"Whatever floats your boat," Proto Man replied.
The thin path wove up the volcano, occasionally tunneling through the outer crust or turning in hairpin zig-zags. The ledge was fairly level, though in some areas it had eroded down the mountain side. The Robot Masters, who were considerably more clumsy than Mega Man and Proto Man, tended to fall behind where the path became treacherous, though Cut Man and Guts Man's collective complaining always assured them that they were never far away.
"So, having fun yet?" asked Proto Man as he lead the way over a rocky overhang.
"Yeah, my life's a blast—except for the year of Wily being a pain in the ass. Shit," Mega Man cursed as the portion of the path he had stepped on gave out unexpectedly, causing him to stumble.
"Language, Mega, sheesh...I thought you're suppose to be a role model for the kids. Do you swear in front of Dr. Light?" Proto Man asked curiously.
Back around the last bend of the path, they heard a soft crumbling of rocks and Guts Man bellow something at Wood Man. They both looked back, then at each other, snickering softly.
"If one of them doesn't fall off this cliff before we reach the top, then I'm a waffle iron," said Proto Man as they ducked through a short tunnel.
Mega Man smiled to himself. Amazingly, this alliance was really working. He and Proto Man were getting along. It was awesome. Except—
"Hey, I know things have been rough between us lately, but I want you to know...if you get tired of things in Light's lab...you're always welcome at Skull Fortress."
Mega Man internally groaned. Not this again…
"It's not all about Wily's schemes," Proto Man continued hastily, as though reading Mega Man's thoughts. "There's no pressure, no obligations, no responsibilities—if you don't feel like doing something, then don't do it. I don't obey Wily—and he knows it—but we get along okay. Think—We could fight together and watch each other's backs, all the time."
"Get it through your head. I will never join you and Wily."
"Okay, okay...but you can always change your mind," Proto Man said neutrally, dropping the subject peacefully. "So, uh…how did you get so good at fighting?" he asked in a would-be-casual tone as they edged around a narrow corner with their backs to the volcano. "I mean, you were never terrible...but then all of a sudden you got a lot better."
Mega Man smirked to himself and didn't answer. He felt smug about the irony behind his secret training, and wasn't about to give anything away. He knew Proto Man was watching him closely and was pleased to see he looked a bit unnerved.
"You're turning into a copycat," Proto Man continued lightly. "I mean, it was only a matter of time before you started to take after me."
"I don't take after you."
"We're similar in a lot of ways. We're both programmed with self-determination," Proto Man countered, leaping over a small gap in the path. "Couldn't be prouder…in some small way, you want to be just like your big brother."
Mega Man felt a bit uncomfortable by Proto Man's last statement. He knew he was a different robot than the one he had once been at activation, no longer Dr. Light's peaceful lab assistant, and he had changed even more since his journey to the future. In a way he was, unconsciously, becoming more like Proto Man. "But you know how I know I'll never be like you? Because you were never like me," Mega Man said aloud. "I never was a criminal."
"Oh sure, I forgot, you're the world's favorite robot hero, honorable and true, defeating the enemy peacefully by disarming them! But Dr. Light didn't tell you to blast the enemy while he's down with his own weapon." Proto Man flashed Mega Man a pleasant smile.
"Like you haven't done worse."
"I wouldn't blast a bot in the back."
"Oh yeah? I've seen you do it a hundred times."
"I wouldn't blast him while he's unarmed, smartass—But all I'm saying is you're not as heroic as you pretend to be."
"If you're referring to me breaking the truce, I'm sorry, okay?"
"You don't have to apologize. I get it—watch that ledge here, it's lose."
"I'm not a bad guy," Mega Man asserted stubbornly as he treaded carefully around the rock.
"I see...you just suffer from mood swings, right? I think Wily plans to use that defense someday."
Mega Man ignored the jab, his mood turning sour.
"Humans aren't all that great, you know," said Proto Man, taking the next hairpin turn. There was still no sign of the golems. "You're already fighting for some pretty corrupt institutions—reporters, corporations, lawmakers, law enforcement...if you really did some digging, you might find they're not so shiny and clean as they pretend to be. Compared to all that, Wily's not the worst thing to happen to the planet."
"What are you trying to get at?"
"You're not so good, and I'm not so bad."
While Mega Man privately agreed, there was still a problem. "How can I trust you? You're always trying to hurt me."
"It wouldn't be this way if we were on the same side."
"We're not on the same side," said Mega Man firmly as they took another hairpin turn. "I don't trust you because that would be stupid, and I'm not letting you or any of them—" Mega Man jerked a thumb back at the Robot Masters, who were thirty feet below them, "—out of my sight because that would be ever stupider. Gee, not much basis there for friendship, is there?"
"But we're still brothers," reasoned Proto Man with a small, uncertain smile.
Mega Man shook his head. "That's not enough."
He was attempting to slam Proto Man with a bit of guilt (an emotion he was beginning to doubt Proto Man could feel), and, sure enough, Proto Man seemed more hurt than remorseful, and turned his back on Mega Man as he nimbly crossed a broken section of the ledge.
Mega Man wasn't done yet. "And after your little stunt with the laser? You're public enemy number one now. Everyone is after you, the police, the American government, the Robot International Police—I've even heard from a senator that the government is considering dismantling you if you ever get caught—"
"Don't you ever think ahead? What that might mean for your future?" Mega Man finished, exasperated.
"Mega, I don't even know if I'm going to live that long," Proto Man said frankly.
"What do you mean by that?" Mega Man asked sharply.
"Nothing! I'm just saying know one knows what the future will be, so why worry?"
You might be surprised. "Well, if you want my respect...then quit living each day like it's your last."
"No one likes a nag, Mega."
They had reached a long stretch of the path that made an arc around the volcano's circumference unbroken by hairpin turns. The forest below them had reduced into the distance as a velvety green ring that faded away in the purple clouds, the ocean scarcely discernible beyond.
"What were you and Dr. Light talking about?" Mega Man asked quietly, checking with one swift glance that the Robot Masters were not listening in.
"Talking about when?"
"Back in the jet."
"Oh that? Last week's game. He still owes me twenty bucks."
"'Ha ha.' I found a journal in Dr. Light's lab about you."
"Yeah. Is what I read about you true?
"Probably. ...What'd it say?"
There was a shadow of a humorless smirk on Proto Man's face. "Dr. Light really never had a clue."
"He adored you and couldn't face the reality that you were becoming a criminal," Mega Man said with a bit of an edge. "Still can't. But I know the real you."
"You do, huh?" Proto Man looked up to the swirling purple clouds. "Then what's better…lying about being a hero, or coming clean about being a villain?"
"Being a hero."
"That wasn't one of the choices."
"I lost my leg in the war…this one's a prosthetic. Plus I have an incurable case of opposing the law."
"I'm trying to have a serious conversation with you."
"If I wanted to have a serious conversation, I'd have given you a serious answer. Besides, I thought you knew me."
"For starters, you're a careless, arrogant jerk who does whatever he wants, living a problem-free life."
"Hey! My life's not problem-free…you wouldn't believe the property tax on Skull Fortress...Wily's considering collecting rent from the Robot Masters—"
"That's not a real problem."
"—And the New York banks now have these new invisible alarms that detect robots. Good thing the response time N.Y.P.D. is slow—(not that I mind the occasional shoot out with robo-officers. I just wish they'd update their targeting systems to match the Californian Robo-officers, it's not even fair)—but Cut Man and Guts Man still manage to screw up even a basic heist."
"Still not a real problem…"
Proto Man hesitated, then said quietly, "I also pissed off a mob boss and I think he might start gunning for Dr. Light to get at me."
But Mega Man had grown weary of Proto Man's line of conversation and was no longer listening, and pushed past Proto Man. "Just forget it."
"I'm serious!" Proto Man called after him.
Proto Man watched as Mega Man stalked ahead with a frown. Saying his suspicions aloud made him feel uneasy, even though he was convinced Centum's vague threat couldn't be a real one. For all Proto Man knew, this was all in his head, just a mind game engineered by Centum to frighten him off.
"Well, I tried, right?" he muttered under his breath.
The ledge widened to six feet across, with a steep bank rising up on one side, a vertical drop on the other plunging all the way to the base of the volcano. Directly underneath, molten rock seeped out from a lower crevice into a long track of lava that pooled around the foot of the mountain. From above, it looked like a wrinkled plastic rain poncho that the volcano had cast off, its gray flakes of cooled ash lying like crusted bark over the ruby red molten rock inching underneath.
"Hey, how hot is lava?" asked Guts Man nervously, gazing down at the lava flow.
"Anywhere from seven hundred to over a thousand degrees Celsius," answered Mega Man.
"Uh. What's the melting point of titanium?"
"Relax," said Proto Man. "Just don't fall off the cliff, then there's nothing to worry about."
In front of them, the path doubled back on itself in another twisted, hairpin turn.
"They're just up ahead!" Mega Man announced in a hushed voice, pointing at the next ledge above.
"They can't climb much more...we're running out of volcano," quipped Proto Man, looking up at the stone heads bobbing past the upper ledge's edge. The cracked-face golem who carried the neutronater was briefly visible at the lead.
But when they rounded the turn, the golems had vanished.
"Hey, where'd they go?" asked Mega Man. Then he leapt back as a falling boulder the size of a refrigerator crashed down on the path in front of him. "Ambush!" he shouted, looking up.
An avalanche pushed by the golems tumbled down the cliffside above them. Reacting automatically, Mega Man and Proto Man drew their plasma cannons and began blasting apart the falling rocks. Wood Man and Guts Man stood their ground, parrying boulders with their master weapons, while Cut Man huddled helplessly between them.
A sudden spray of dust flew into Mega Man's eyes, momentarily blinding him, and in that moment's time a boulder smashed into him. He felt himself flailing backward over the cliff, reached out desperately, and just managed to catch the corner of the ledge with his fingertips. Proto Man, seeing Mega Man was in peril, darted to the edge, reaching for his wrist.
"Never mind me, look out!" Mega Man warned as the golems rolled out their grand finale, a mammoth-sized chunk of granite that could easily crush a small house. Cut Man and Guts Man yelped in fright as the boulder hurtled toward the robots with alarming speed. Proto Man yanked Mega Man back onto the ledge
"Together!" said Mega Man.
They fired at the same time, the gold and electric blue plasma shattering the falling boulder like brittle clay, then ducked against the cliffside with their arms protecting the back of their necks as shards of rock rained upon them like shrapnel. After a moment, the sound of lose stone gradually faded as the avalanche died. Mega Man and Proto Man straightened up and stood back from the cliff wall, craning their necks to peer at the ledge above them, but the golems were gone.
"Way to go, Proto Man!" cheered Guts Man.
"That's gratitude for ya," Mega Man grumbled. Then he caught sight of something beyond Guts Man's shoulder. "—But we're not out of trouble yet!"
Back along the the ledge behind them, a troop of golems was ascending the volcano in their disconcertingly silent manner, and had just entered throwing-range. Wood Man, who was bringing up the rear, successfully deflected a few of their spears with his Leaf Shield before they reached the rest of the robots, but his movements (like his manner) were slow and many of the spears streaked past him.
"Look out!" Cut Man cried as one of the spears narrowly missed his head.
The next spear whistled above Wood Man's Leaf Shield, ricocheted off the cliffside, and struck Guts Man in the chest, knocking him toward the ledge. Wood Man grabbed Guts Man by the arm before he lost balance and fell down the cliffside, then, in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to return his fellow Robot Master to level footing, threw Guts Man on a clear portion of ledge toward the advancing golems.
"Looks like I gotta save your circuits again, Guts Man!" Mega Man called, firing at the cliffside above the golems. A cascade of of rocks fell upon them, sweeping the golems off the ledge, down the long cliffside and into the lava river hundreds of feet below. Cut Man, Wood Man, Proto Man, and Mega Man gazed somberly down as the stone figures were enveloped by lava like toy soldiers sinking into melted silly putty, while Guts Man picked himself up with an indignant huff.
"Make me look stupid, will ya?" he growled, shoving past Wood Man and Cut Man to get at Mega Man. Proto Man shot between them, shielding Mega Man from the reach of Super Arm by pushing Guts Man back (no easy task as Guts Man towered over him by four feet).
"Forget it, big guy. We've got work to do."
"Better listen to him," advised Mega Man. "Now let's see what's inside this volcano."
The path ended at a black opening of what appeared to be a manmade tunnel into the volcano. Warm air wafted toward them carrying the pungent smell of sulfur.
"This must be where they went," said Proto Man, wrinkling his nose.
"Looks like the Vanuu'bi carved this passage out of a side vent," observed Mega Man.
"Side vent? What does that mean?" Cut Man asked anxiously.
"It's a tunnel left behind when excess magma forces its way through the side of a volcano," explained Mega Man. "It'll lead us to the conduit, or the main magma shaft which runs through the center of the volcano."
"...You want to follow the stone-bots there?"
"If the stone-bots really want to cause another eruption, they need to take the neutronater to the magma reservoir at the bottom of the conduit, and if we don't cut them off soon before that then we're as good as titanium soup."
"No way! We're not going in a volcano! That's crazy!" protested Guts Man. Cut Man nodded fervently in agreement.
"Fine, you three wait out here then," Proto Man said impatiently, stepping inside the tunnel. "Mega and I are doing all the work anyway."
"Don't try anything funny—and watch out for lightning," put in Mega Man warningly as he followed Proto Man.
"Hey! I don't take orders from you!" growled Guts Man, his huge hands balled into fists the size of yellow beach balls.
"Shut up and do what he says, Guts Man," Proto Man called back offhandedly.
"Good luck!" called Wood Man, waving at Mega Man.
The tunnel was tubular, wider than it was tall, and sloped gently downward, the broken remains of what had once been a stone cut floor forming an uneven path. Every few yards, faded parts of Vanuu'bi pictographs were carved into the wall.
"It's strange how some of this survived the last eruption. You don't think this place is booby trapped, do you?" Mega Man wondered aloud, half-jokingly.
As Mega Man said this, the smooth tile under Proto Man's foot suddenly depressed into the floor, and out of the crevices in the wall shot a hundred stone darts, which bounced off Proto Man's titanium armor. "Hmm, yup," Proto Man commented blandly. "Good thing we're robots."
The tunnel widened and gave way to a large cave with tapered walls that stretched higher than a cathedral's ceiling. Weak yellow light filtered in through a jagged circle in the cave's roof, marking the volcano's mouth. Tan stalagmites and stalactites long as trees and thick as busses rose up from the floor or hung from the ceiling, some touching in the middle, creating ropey towers.
"Whoa, weird cave," said Proto Man.
"I'll say," agreed Mega Man. "This must be the top of the volcano's throat. Water trickled down from the crater above, creating this cave. These stalactites must be thousands of years old to become this massive."
"I know, nerd, you don't have to turn everything into a science lesson," grumbled Proto Man. "Let's just find where the stone guys went, I'm ready to finish them off."
Mega Man nodded and began to walk cautiously toward the right side of the cave. "There must be a way down into the volcano." He peered into the dark outer edges of the cave, which was about a football field's length away. The large stalagmite formations grew well above his head, creating a multitude of places for the golems to hide. The ground between them was dry, smooth, and warm, with a slight slope toward the center of the cave. Distantly, thunder crashed outside the volcano. Mega Man estimated by now that the radiation levels were high enough to animate every rock on the island, and turned around to tell Proto Man this when he realized he had completely lost sight of Proto Man, the one thing he had made a point since the beginning not to do.
"Proto?" he called, his voice echoing through the cave.
No response. Mega Man was immediately on guard. It would be just like his brother to sneak off to spring an attack from the shadows. Mega Man was just about to draw a blaster when he heard an excited shout further into the cave.
"Mega Man, I found them!"
"Really? Where?" Mega Man called back, relaxing.
"Over here! I can see the neutronater," Proto Man replied. His voice sounded further away.
"Okay, I'll be right there!" answered Mega Man, tearing after Proto Man. He could hear the dying echoes of a set of titanium boots bouncing off the cave walls far ahead.
"Hurry, I'll need your help fighting the stone-bots before they get away!"
"Waitup, I can't run that fast!" called Mega Man, weaving through the forest of stalagmites. How had Proto Man gotten so far ahead?
"Mega, c'mon! We're going to lose them!"
"I'm coming!" Mega Man shouted, slipping on the smooth, concave floor.
"Quit being a slow poke!" Proto Man chastised, but his voice was growing stronger.
"I'm not, I'm almost there, just hang on a second—"
Mega Man skirted round a bumpy column and finally saw Proto Man ahead, standing quite still in an opening somewhere in the back of the cave.
"Proto, what are you doing—"
Mega Man skidded to a halt, startled. It wasn't Proto Man at all, but a golem, roughly carved the same size and shape as Mega Man, like a distorted mirror image. Two holes for eyes and a gash below like half-moon smile marked its otherwise smooth face.
Mega Man stared at the strange statue, a chill running down his spine. "What the…?"
A sharp crack reverberated overhead. As Mega Man looked up, someone tackled him with enough force to propel them to the opposite wall while three stalactites, thick as semi trucks, came crashing down on the spot Mega Man had just been standing.
"Why did you run off? You told me to wait," Proto Man demanded crossly as the dust from the cave in cleared.
"No, I didn't. I heard you calling me to follow you this way," answered Mega Man in a low voice.
They stood up and looked back at the three stalactites, which had pierced the cave floor and cracked the statue in half.
"From now on, let's stick together," said Proto Man. "It wants to split us up because it knows it can't beat us when we're a team."
Mega Man gave Proto Man a small smile. "You're referring to it as a being. I thought you didn't believe there was a 'Great One.'"
"Well, something's trying to kill us," answered Proto Man dryly. "C'mon, let's try those stairs."
"Stairs? Where?" asked Mega Man.
"Right there," said Proto Man, pointing farther along the wall where a series of steps had been carved into the stone. "Looks like they'll circle around the volcano's conduit, or something."
The stairs were narrow, chipped, and uneven, and descended into an ominously black void in the cave's floor with one side to a wall and the other into gaping nothingness.
"I know, I know, me first," said Proto Man, taking the first few steps.
"You don't have to—we don't know what's down there—" Mega Man began feebly.
Proto Man smiled. "Too bad, I'm older—And no offense, but you were singled out first."
Mega Man mentally sighed. For someone who can't feel guilt, he sure knows how to lay it on.
"Oh, almost forgot." Proto Man reached underneath his scarf and pulled out a pair of blue chemical light sticks that he had looped around his neck, cracked them open, and handed one up to Mega Man. "Here, I swiped these from the hoverjet."
"Uh…thanks," said Mega Man as he accepted one of his own light sticks.
The soft blue glow of the light sticks illuminated the steps before them as they ran down the spiraling stone staircase drilling into the center of the volcano. They descended in silence for several minutes, seeing nothing, the temperature gradually rising, when the light fell across a smooth landing.
"What's this?" Mega Man asked, pausing. Etched on the floor in fine, deep lines was a pattern that Mega Man was able to identify as an immensely intricate lunar calendar, which charted both the positions of the sun and and moon at each new moon phase, ending in a solar eclipse. Branching off from the landing was a carved archway, the space beyond completely black, as if absorbing the light.
Proto Man, who had passed by the landing without giving it a second glance, also halted, raising his light stick higher to look back at Mega Man. "I dunno. Looks like another cave."
"Hang on, I want to check this out."
"Geeze, now? Alright, but let's make it quick."
Unlike the rest of the volcano, the small cave felt cool, and their footsteps were strangely muffled on the black stone floor. Lingering among the rock was a sense of abandonment, the short stalactites marking its neglect like thousand year old cobwebs. In the center of the cave's floor lay a crumbling circular pit, three feet in diameter, like the mouth of an old well. An identical opening mirrored above it in the ceiling.
"It's the temple the Vanuu'bi built," stated Mega Man, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.
"Not much to look at, huh?" Proto Man whispered back.
"Something was here, once."
"Maybe, but it's gone now. Long gone. C'mon, Mega, we're wasting time here...and to be honest, this place kinda gives me the creeps."
Mega Man nodded, cast one last look at the strange double well, then followed Proto Man out of the ancient temple.
Roll was having difficulty flying back to the hoverjet after leaving the other robots at the Vanuu'bi village.
"Whoa, the purple radiation stuff is getting to your rocket engines too, huh Rush?" she asked as Rush gave an unsteady jerk, causing them to graze the treetops of the jungle.
Rush whined, and began to list to the left while losing speed.
"Just hang in there a little longer…" Roll urged, guiding Rush to straighten his flight path.
After several minutes, they reached the clearing where the hoverjet lay. Relieved to be on solid ground again after the unsteady journey, Roll quickly punched in the code to release the airstairs, then ran up them with Rush at her heals.
Dr. Light looked an odd mix of very pleased to see Roll (possibly thankful to see another person after being trapped with a loathsome ex-colleague for over an hour) and worried. "You're back? Is anything wrong?"
"Yeah, we have problems, big time—but don't worry, Mega Man is okay! For now, anyway—but he found out something about the stone guys, and I don't think you're going to like it. I flew to tell you, but first I think something might be wrong with Rush."
With another whine, Rush curled up at Dr. Light's feet and put his head down, his eyes shut and his ears drooped.
Dr. Light crouched down to inspect Rush. "He'll be alright, his circuits just need to cool down," he announced, patting Rush on the head. "Please, what were you going to say about the statues?"
"And be quick about it. If you haven't found my neutronater, you shouldn't be here," Dr. Wily informed her pointedly, his arms crossed.
Roll glared at Dr. Wily. "This concerns you too. Mega and I and those other losers followed the stone guys into the island, and eventually found the ancient remains of a petrified village near the volcano. Get this, Mega Man translated some of the ruins there and found a creepy story of an ancient 'Great One' that helped the original islanders trigger a volcanic eruption."
"Little girl-robot, I am a scientist, I don't believe in things like stone fairy tales," Dr. Wily told interrupted her haughtily. "Really, Tom, why keep robots with such fanciful cognition circuits? It must get tiresome listening to her constant prattle—"
Roll grabbed Dr. Wily's sleeve roughly. "Listen, bozo, if I had things my way, you'd be swimming in shark infested waters with a bloody nose and no life-preserver, don't push me."
"Ack! It's attacking me! Tom, do something to control your creation!"
"Albert, Roll, please," Dr. Light broke in, lifting a hand. He looked at Roll gravely. "This is a very strange story. Tell me more about what Mega Man found out."
Roll reluctantly released Dr. Wily (who dusted off his sleeve and shot Dr. Light a scandalized expression), and continued. "Mega thinks the stone guys are going to try and make it happen again, and they're going to the volcano to stop them. That's where those stone guys took the neutronater."
"That's not good news," said Dr. Light, turning toward his computer. He beckoned Dr. Wily and Roll to look over his shoulder. On his monitor was a green wire frame model of the island, animated with red lines to simulate lava spewing from the volcano and completely engulfing the island within the time lapse of minutes. "By my calculations, if they reactivate that volcano, it could destroy the entire island and us with it."
"We better get going," said Roll, watching the simulation replay itself. She looked up, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "Hey...where's Wily?"
They both looked instantly toward the plug door, which had just slammed shut. On the other side of the window stood Dr. Wily's narrow frame, his face hidden underneath a welding mask as he fused the plug door to its frame using the hoverjet's blow torch. His job done, Dr. Wily flung aside the welding mask, flashed them a wicked grin before dashing down the airstairs and into the jungle.
"Ugh, I let that hookworm out of my sight for one second..." muttered Roll, tugging uselessly at the plug door's handle.
"I should have known he'd betray us," Dr. Light lamented.
"I won't say I told you so...but I told you so!" said Roll exasperatedly.
Dr. Light punched the reinforced window in an uncharacteristic display of aggravation. "He's going to get rid of us all," he hissed, rubbing his bruised knuckles, "—unless we get out of here and get to Mega Man!"
"Stand back!" commanded Roll, drawing a rotary saw from her utility arm. "Let's just hope we can get out in time!"
The staircase continued to spiral downward, passing through areas in the conduit that were blocked, until finally they could see a growing patch of red light ahead. Proto Man slowed down at the end of the staircase, raising a hand to signal Mega Man to halt too, and they carefully peered around the corner.
The staircase ended in a rough balcony that opened up to a chamber nearly as big as the cave above, with another set of stairs curling around the left wall leading down to the floor. Six giant statues were carved at vertices around the chamber like pillars holding up the cave ceiling, each poised to stare down a the floor. Below their gaze, fifty some animated golems stood in a ring, including the large golem with a cracked face they had been tracking, the neutronater sitting on its spindly tripod behind it. The heat of the chamber was immense, rising up from the stones into their boots like a sun-scorched sidewalk.
"I'm surprised your scarf isn't getting singed down here," Mega Man commented as they assessed the chamber.
"It's a good scarf. ...What is that thing?"
In the middle of the golem's ring was an obsidian disc, several yards in diameter, and painstakingly cut to be so perfectly round that it was mesmerizing. It was resting on what looked like a circular fire pit the size of a swimming pool. Judging from the light and heat escaping from around its edges, the magma pool must lay somewhere underneath. Two parallel belts cut the disc's face into thirds, each engraved in strange, geometric writing unlike the Vannu'bi's script they had encountered before. The writing contained no discernible pattern or lexicon, so Mega Man couldn't translate it. Between the bands lay a large petroglyph like the outline of an eye, with no pupil or iris. Carved lines in the floor resembled roots growing from the disc's top and bottom.
"The 'Great One?'" whispered Mega Man. "And look at that!"
The neutronater was humming loudly, its mini-satellite dish spinning, and a cloud of radiation filled the chamber like a fine smokescreen. The bands of writing on the obsidian disc glowed in golden light, and from the center of carved eye rose a frail tongue of purple flame, with no visible source of fuel.
"This looks like a dark rite. Too bad Roll had to miss out, based on her taste in music she would have loved to see this," commented Proto Man. "Well, we already know how this ends, so let's get closer and break it up."
"One good charge and we can destroy the neutronater," murmured Mega Man.
"Whatever you say, brother..."
They stepped into the chamber, drawing their blasters. The golems turned, noticing the intruders, and swarmed toward the bottom of the stairs. Anticipating their movement, Mega Man fired at the cave ceiling, burying the first few rows with a shower of rocks. He then ran down the stairs and over the rubble while Proto Man leapt down into the thick and began blasting.
Mega Man skirted around the edge of the chamber, got in close to the golem with a cracked face, feigned moving to the right before dodging around it to the left as it lunged toward him, then fired at the neutronater.
The shot hit the neutronater with a light clink, knocking it across the chamber toward the stairs as the plasma ricocheting to the opposite wall between two giant golem statues.
"Wily reinforced its casing with super steel," Proto Man called, basting apart a stout golem looming over him with a club.
"Now you tell me," grumbled Mega Man, ducking underneath a vicious left hook from the cracked-face golem. He grabbed its outstretched arm and threw the golem over his shoulder, smashing it against the ground.
The rest of the golems stopped advancing and began droning loudly to one other, edging away from Mega Man and Proto Man to fall back against the wall around the neutronater. A faint scraping noise came from the center of the chamber. Both Mega Man and Proto Man whirled around to look, then backed up themselves as the heavy obsidian disc levitated several inches off the floor, revealing a long pit which ended in the magma pool far below.
The disc began to spin serenely, drifting slowly away from the pit between them and the golems. As it passed, the purple flame fell lightly to the ground with a small sputter. It had grown in size and brightness, becoming a small orb no larger than a golfball. Mega Man blinked, and looked closer, entranced. For a second, he thought he saw a figure of a skull flickering in the purple flames.
Proto Man shot out an arm, barring Mega Man from moving nearer.
"Don't touch it, science geek. Yeesh, you're worse than Wily."
"I wasn't going to touch it, I just wanted a closer look," Mega Man protested guiltily.
"Ever heard 'some things are better left alone?'"
The purple flame suddenly flared up, doubling in size, and Mega Man and Proto Man both leapt back, startled. With a whoosh of warm air, the obsidian disc made a sharp turn midair, rising so that its face was turned toward them, its carvings glowing like rivers of molten gold once again. Then the walls of the chamber began to rumble. Proto Man leapt back as a lance-like stone spike shot out from the wall toward his chest in the space of under a second, then once again as two more spikes followed in pursuit, accurately tracking his position.
"It's going after you!" Mega Man warned, about to run in a counter direction of Proto Man in hopes of somehow leading the spikes away from him.
But Mega Man couldn't move. Glancing down, he saw that, without feeling it, his feet had somehow sunk straight through the smooth rock floor up to his ankles, and were stuck fast. At the same time, he noticed the flame appeared to be closer than where it was before.
Looking up again, he saw Proto Man bounding in great leaps around the chamber as spikes catapulted toward him from all sides, just missing his head or grazing across his shoulder. Meanwhile, the obsidian disc was tearing around the chamber like a giant, mad frisbee, breaking through the spikes in a clear effort to cut Proto Man in half. On the other side of the magma pit, the golems were watching Proto Man's movements, their spears raised. "Proto, look out!" Mega Man shouted.
The golems lobbed their spears, and Mega Man raised his blaster and fired, shattering them before they reached their target. But Proto Man was having enough trouble keeping ahead of the barrage of spikes and the merciless obsidian disc. He had just managed to clear the disc by leaping over it as it came crashing down on him on a vertical like a circular saw, when one of the spikes shot in font of him, knocking him down mid-jump.
Mega Man cringed as Proto Man fell. The disc whirled underneath Proto Man, intercepting his body like a frying pan catching a pancake, before tilting him toward the magma pit. Proto Man recovered just in time to leapt off the disc's face, giving him enough momentum to clear the pit, catch the other edge, and quickly flipping himself back on to even ground, rolling away just in time as a row of thin spikes nearly dropped on top of him like a portcullis.
Feeling useless, Mega Man made another futile lunge to help Proto Man, then looked down in frustration at his cemented feet. He blasted the ground to loosen the rock, then experience a sickening sweeping sensation as he sank another few inches, still firmly rooted. With dread he realized the purple flame was indeed inching closer, in quick, guttering lurches like the last flame of a dying ember. Mega Man fired at it, but the plasma phased through it like a hologram. Then he tried to lean away from it, but a sheet of rock had appeared behind him, slowly pushing him forward—
"Hang on!" Proto Man called. Dodging underneath one spike and over a second, Proto Man whirled around and shot a blue blaze of plasma directly in the center of the obsidian disc's blank eye as it pivoted to face him again.
The disc snapped in half on impact, crashing to the floor. In the same instant, the purple flame went out like a snuffed candle. Everything went still, the spikes crumbled apart. Mega Man felt the hold around his feet loosen. Proto Man ran to his side, grabbed his arm, and tugged him out of the floor.
"Okay, what—the hell—was that," said Proto Man, panting.
"I—I don't know," answered Mega Man, also shaken. "How did you know that would work?"
Proto Man shrugged. "Use to play a lot of video games."
At the disappearance of the flame, the golems began growling louder than before, turning toward Mega Man and Proto Man, their microprocessors flashing.
"Get ready, Mega...looks like the party's not over yet," quipped Proto Man.
Dr. Wily sprinted through the jungle to his ruined encampment. After scanning around to make sure the coast was clear of any stone-bots, he darted under the tandem rotocoptor (which he could instantly see was unsalvageable and would need to be replaced) to a grove of saplings behind it where the Skullker had been hidden under thatches made from palm leaves. Its hull was dented and one of the eye-socket windows was cracked, but it had flown in worse repair, and he hastily climbed in.
After three failed attempts to start the engines, the giant rotor on the bottom finally sputtered to life and the Skullker was air born, albeit teetering unsteady in the radiation. Dr. Wily took vicious satisfaction in the pride that one of his inventions flew better under such condition than one of Dr. Light's as he hit the throttle and blasted off toward the volcano.
But the satisfaction was short-lived as it became clear after two almost nose-dives that the Skullker wasn't going to make it much longer. He barely managed to circle the volcano once, locate the Robot Masters huddled forlornly against the ledge outside the side vent, and land, using two robotic arms to drill into the volcano's side for a secure hold.
Dr. Wily leapt out victoriously onto the ledge, his white lab coat whipping behind him. "What are you idiots loitering around for?" he demanded. "Never mind, come with me. It's time to collect my neutronater before my nemesis gets to it."
"But Proto Man said we could wait out here…" Guts Man mumbled, shuffling his feet.
Dr. Wily gave them a fierce look, his bushy eyebrows bunched into a sharp V, and Guts Man and Cut Man hastily sprang to his command and followed him down the side vent, Wood Man cheerfully bringing up the rear. They soon located the spiral staircase and traveled straight down it, Dr. Wily leading the way with a flashlight. Oddly, they did not pass any archways or notice any abandoned temples.
At the bottom of the spiral stair, they slowed, hearing the echoes of plasma fire, and crept toward the opening of the chamber, where they saw Mega Man and Proto Man fending off the golems below. The neutronater lay unmanned and motionless at the foot of the stairs leading down to the chamber's floor.
"Now we'll see some real fireworks," Dr. Wily cackled.
It took fifteen minutes for Roll to carve open the plug door, and by then they figured Dr. Wily was long gone, and feared for Mega Man's life. Leaving Dr. Light behind to watch over the hoverjet, Roll set out alone on Rush toward the volcano.
The ride was far from smooth. The visibility was poor, and Rush was not faring well against the radiation cloud, flying in a wild zig-zag path filled with unexpected drops and pitches, and twice lightning flashed dangerously close. The trip took five times longer than it should have, and Roll felt very lucky that they made it at all. Finally, they were over the volcano, and could see the battered Skullker Dr. Wily had just exited minutes before perched precariously next to an opening.
"Oh, those dirty little bastards…" Roll growled, arming a rotary saw. She was just about to fire at the Skullker's robotic arms when Rush's jet suddenly spewed a cloud of smoke. Without propulsion, he gave a yelp as they began to fall. Roll held on tightly to his neck as they dropped through the volcano's mouth, skidded across the rocky floor of the crater, before crashing into the opposite wall.
Roll leapt up and transformed her utility arm into a fire extinguisher. "This will cool you off!" she said, putting out the small fire in Rush's jet engine. Once he had stopped smoking, she took a quick look around, spying the opening in the floor where Mega Man and Proto Man had disappeared earlier while Rush transformed back into a dog and shook off the white chemical foam.
Roll glanced down the staircase, drawing a flashlight lantern from her utility arm. "Stay here Rush, can't risk you getting hurt...you may be our only escape if things get hairy."
Rush whined, but sat down next to a three-pointed stalagmite.
"Good boy," said Roll, darting down the stairs.
The golems were swiftly closing in on both sides of the magma pit. Proto Man and Mega Man stood back-to-back, eyeing the golems facing them. Proto Man's scarf brushed against Mega Man's back as they shifted to look behind at each others adversaries. Then, as one, they moved, Mega Man firing over Proto Man's shoulder at a spear aimed at Proto Man, while Proto Man gave a flying kick to knock back a golem lunging toward Mega Man.
"This is what it's all about, Mega," Proto Man said, smiling back at Mega Man. "Are we a team, or what?"
"'Or what,' Proto Man," Mega Man reminded him, turning around to blast the spear-less golem that had lunged at them. "Just take care of business."
Out of the corner of his eye, Proto Man spotted movement, and looked to see Dr. Wily creeping down the stairs toward the neutronater, the Robot Masters behind him. Proto Man snickered to himself, looking back at Mega Man's turned back. "Yeah, sure, bro….back to business."
After burning his fingers once, Dr. Wily pulled out his floral handkerchief from inside his labcoat, wrapped it around his hand, and opened the hot super steel access panel to look inside the neutronater.
"Ahhh, I see what happened. It overheated," Dr. Wily murmured to himself. He pulled out the neutronater's fried energy cell and replaced it with a spare from his pocket, then whirled it around to face its control interface and reboot it. "There!" he proclaimed, wiping beads of sweat from his brow as the neutronater began humming, its mini-satellite dish revolving. "That did it. Mega Man will never know what hit him." He glared over at the golems. "Destroy Mega Man!"
Mega Man was busy blocking an assault of stone spears and clubs when the microprocessors on the golems' chests flashed.
"So long brother, it's been tons of fun," Proto Man called, lowering his blaster.
Mega Man looked up at Proto Man's odd remark, and noticed that the golems were no longer after both of them, but just himself, and spotted Dr. Wily next to the neutronater with the Robot Masters. "Wily, you double-crossing snake!" he shouted as the golems backed him up against a wall.
"Sticks and stones, Mega Man," Dr. Wily called back, leering. "Face it, you're history."
"You mean you're gonna be history, Wily!" shouted a voice. They all looked up at the ledge to see Roll skidding into the chamber, glaring defiantly at Dr. Wily.
"Couldn't stay away, huh?" Dr. Wily answered dryly, dabbing his forehead with the floral handkerchief. "Now I can get rid of all of you at the same time. Proto Man, Cut Man, Guts Man, Wood Man! Destroy them!"
"With pleasure!" answered Proto Man. He fired without reservation at the ledge, which crumbled underneath Roll, dumping her down into the Robot Masters.
Mega Man glared exasperatedly at Proto Man, who gave him a sarcastic sort of salute. That was it then, alliance over.
Shoving through the golems, who tore at his arms and legs, Mega Man rushed toward Roll, but she had already picked herself up, ducking between Guts Man's legs to avoid a wild swing from Super Arm (which, missing her, found its unlucky mark in Cut Man instead) then kicked Guts Man in the back, knocking him down on Cut Man, the pair of them shouting abuse at each other as they became entangled.
"Welcome to your doom, jerk heads!" shouted Wood Man. It sounded more like a confused announcement than a threat. Mega Man lunged at him with a flying kick, sending Wood Man flying into the opposite wall.
"If I were you, I would get out of here before your bark spontaneously combusts," Mega Man advised as he bent down to copy Wood Man's weapon. Then he darted away to join Roll, who was in the middle of the fray between twenty growling golems.
"I told you we should have double-crossed them first," Roll hissed, lassoing a stone-bot with a cable in her utility arm and yanking it into the magma pit.
"Yeah, but I knew I could count on you to bail me out when I get into trouble," Mega Man replied with an unabashed grin, blocking a pair of stone spears with Leaf Shield.
"Yeah, well after this I know I'd be way better at your job than you," Roll grumbled.
Proto Man joined Dr. Wily next to the neutronater, watching Mega Man and Roll dispatch the remaining golems. "Your stone-bots are useless!"
"We shall see...I'll turn up the neutronater to full power," said Dr. Wily, flipping a red switch on the control interface.
The satellite dish on the neutronater began whirling like a blender. Another radiation cloud fanned out, reaching up to the cave's ceiling, bathing the six giant statues surrounding them. Then, with a rustle of breaking stone, one lifted its train car sized leg and stomped forward, the ground quivering as it pulled away from the wall.
Dr. Wily gave a low, wicked laugh as the other giant golems broke free and took their first steps. "Sometimes I truly amaze myself." He waved an arm toward Mega Man and Roll. "Get them!"
"Mega, I think we got really big trouble now!" whispered Roll as one of the giants loomed over them, its growl deep like the reverberations of trucks driving over a bridge.
As three of the giant golems lumbered toward Mega Man and Roll with slow, tremulous steps, one of the giant golems paused, then turned slowly toward Dr. Wily and Proto Man.
"No...no...no! Go back!" Dr. Wily commanded shrilly, backing away from the giant golem. It ignored him and raised its titanic foot. "Ahhhhh!" Dr. Wily screamed as he and Proto Man dove aside in opposite directions, narrowly avoiding being crushed.
Proto Man picked himself up from the ground, his face turned upward to the six giant golems, who had split their attention equally upon all non-stone entities in the room. The Robot Masters were hastily scrambling away from their reach. "It backfired! They're attacking us!"
"Too much power! It's over heated again!" exclaimed Dr. Wily as the neutronater shook violently on its tripod, glowing a bright white. With a thunderous crack, the floor spit in two, revealing the rising floor of bubbling magma at the bottom of a long crevice. Dr. Wily leapt back, his eyes popping. "RETREAT! RUN FOR YOUR WORTHLESS LIVES!"
"That's the smartest thing you've said all day Wily!" retorted Proto Man as they tore off for the stairs.
It was getting brighter in the chamber, and hot. Too hot. Static veiled Mega Man's vision, and his systems began broadcasting warnings as his circuits began to overheat.
"This whole place is going to blow!" he shouted to Roll. "Hold off the giants, I'll get the neutronater!"
Roll nodded and ran past him. "Hey, ugly! Yeah I'm talking to you, Frankenstein! Over here!" she called, shooting a giant golem with her ball shooter.
Big and strong, but a little slow, Mega Man thought as he dodged nimbly through the giant's stomping legs toward the neutronater. It was now humming shrilling and rocking back and forth. With one blast, Mega Man knocked it over. The neutronater tumbled into the central pit and sunk into the magma with hiss, crumbling into itself like a candy wrapper under flame. Mega Man pumped his fist. Bullseye.
The giant golems Roll was distracting stopped moving mid-pace. "It worked!" she cheered. Then the ground cracked again, and a geyser of magma shot up from the well. "Uh oh, time to go!"
Mega Man was scanning the chamber frantically. "Where are the Bad-bots?"
"Who cares!" said Roll, running toward the stairs.
Proto Man, Dr. Wily, and the Robot Masters had just finished scaling the long, spiraling stairs up to the volcano's crater. After urging the Robot Masters to continue running across the cave toward the Skullker, Proto Man lagged behind with Dr. Wily, who was human and therefore winded after running up thousands of stairs.
The ground shook and suddenly broke apart in front of them, crumbling away into a wide, yawning hole above the volcano's conduit and the bed of magma creeping up it.
"The floor collapsed!" Dr. Wily wheezed hysterically as they hastily backed up. "There's no way out! We're doomed, doomed!"
Without hesitation, Proto Man grabbed Dr. Wily by the scruff of his lab coat and pitched him over the thirty foot ravine toward the Robot Masters. At the same time, the floor underneath him gave out, and Proto Man tumbled downward.
A hand caught Proto Man by the arm, stopping his fall, and pulled him up a ledge.
Proto Man looked down at the magma, gave a low whistle, then smiled at his rescuer. "I could have been melted!" he said with a ghost of a laugh, straightening his scarf. "Getting sentimental, brother?"
"You saved my life, I saved yours," Mega Man said shorty. He jerked a thumb behind him. "There's an open side vent back there. Now get out of here while you still can."
Proto Man stood up, dusting off his shoulder. "That's how it is, huh?"
Mega Man said nothing, giving Proto Man a hard look, both of them waiting for something that wasn't going to happen.
"By the way...it's the second of June and 6:11 here, which means it's past midnight back in New York," said Proto Man finally.
Mega Man opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and turned his back on Proto Man. He sprinted up the spiral stairs back into the crumbling cave, turned a corner around a shaking stalagmite, and almost crashed into Roll and Rush.
"There you are, I saw the Bad-bots and thought you ran were in trouble!" she said, punching him in the shoulder, but looking relieved.
"I did run into them, but it's alright."
"Good. Rush can jet us out now, let's go!"
Rush transformed, and he and Roll climbed on top and held on tight as Rush shot upward through the volcano's mouth.
The hoverjet was waiting for them above. As soon as Mega Man, Roll, and Rush had jetted through the open plug door, it took off. A moment later lava spewed from the top of the volcano like an over boiling pot, spilling down the sides and into the jungle, setting the trees ablaze.
Roll and Mega Man collapsed exhaustedly into the passenger seats next to Dr. Light.
"No more neutronater, no more stone-bots, no more radiation dome," announced Mega Man.
"And no more evil island," Roll put in.
"Good work, both of you, I knew you could do it," congratulated Dr. Light as he steered the hoverjet in a wide arc away from the column of smoke arising from the island.
"Right. Now we can go home," said Roll with a happy sigh, reclining in her chair.
"You got it, sis. I've had enough of this tropical paradise," said Mega Man, wiping volcanic ash from his armor with a towel.
"I'm just glad to get away from those two-faced creeps," remarked Roll. Then her face lit up, and she whirled to face Mega Man. "Hey, did you realize today is technically our 'birthday'?"
Mega Man paused, then said, "Yeah, I did."
Roll looked a little disappointed by Mega Man's lack of reaction to this news. "Well, we should celebrate, or something…"
"Why don't we take a week off and spend it in a hotel in the city?" suggested Dr. Light. "You were right earlier, Roll, we have been working pretty hard, and deserve a vacation for all our hard work."
"There's no place like New York," Mega Man agreed.
"It's been awhile since I've been to a symphony, and there is a internationally renowned cellist playing at Carnegie Hall," said Dr. Light, smiling wistfully. "You two could go shopping."
"Or to the dance clubs, there's a new one on 9th street," added Roll, looking at Mega Man excitedly.
"If I have to, but only to keep an eye on you," said Mega Man in a playfully resigned voice. "You know I can't dance."
"Pshh, whatever! You'll have fun, and you know it."
With this decided, the family began making plans for the upcoming week. Though Mega Man joined in, his thoughts lingered back with the island and his short-lived alliance with his estranged brother. He looked out the window, and thought he saw the shadow of the Skullker disappearing into the clouds far in the distance.
For a split second, Proto Man had been defenseless. Mega Man could have easily subdued him, taken him prisoner, forced him to turn himself in.
But he didn't. Proto Man had to turn around himself, self-determination. Until then, he was still an enemy, and if Mega Man defeated and captured him before he proved to the world he had a good side, any chance for his freedom would be gone, and Mega Man didn't want it that way. Though he had obligations to be the World's hero against Dr. Wily, he still held nothing more important than family, his one principle he would never change, no matter what the future held.
Behind the hoverjet, the island smoldering into the Pacific, never to be seen again.
It was just after six in the morning at the the Robot International Police's current headquarters in Copenhagen when it struck him.
Pain. Anger. Burning up. Screaming. The maddening sensation of being several places at once, several forms at once, several times at once.
Then, with a jerk, Ra Thor came back to himself, feeling prickly, as if his armor was crawling.
He was standing on duty in R.I.P.'s circular command center with several of the robot officers. The Robot Masters had been joking around with Knight Man and Wind Man (who had just returned from a successful counterfeit bust in the Himalayans against a small robot crime ring) when it happened, and all traces of merriment had vanished from their faces as they stared at Ra Thor in concern.
"Are you alright?"
"Are you malfunctioning?"
"I'll get Dr. Umlauf."
"No, I'll be alright," replied Ra Thor, cutting off his officers. He was aware that he was unconsciously cringing and quickly straightened up to add assurance to this claim. "Just a system stall...an old issue in my programming that predates all of you, but I believe the worst is over."
The Robot Masters looked relieved.
"Oh, well, if it's just that," said Gravity Man, breaking into a grin.
"Well no, it might not just be just that," Ra Thor admitted. "It reminded me of an important conversation I had with Duo last month while he was returning from Space."
The Robot Masters around at each other, frowning. This was the first they had heard anything of that.
"Ah, nothing to do with aliens I hope," said Gravity Man, chuckling. Several of the other robots smiled.
"I hope not either. We have enough danger to worry about," answered Ra Thor seriously.
"Danger?" repeated Knight Man, his voice echoing in his full coverage helmet. "What danger?"
"I'm sorry, I cannot say, because I myself do not know," answered Ra Thor. "Can you carry on without me? I'm going to see Duo right now."
"But Duo's still recharging in the repair ward—" spoke up Flame Man.
"It can't wait. He'll understand. Inspector Headley will be here in an hour. Tornado Man, you are familiar with the new cases, would you take over the briefing until then? Make sure the latest orders are sent out to the sergeants on the field."
"Sure, Ra Thor," said Tornado Man softly. The Robot Masters were still watching Ra Thor worriedly, as if fearing he were about to collapse.
Ra Thor was a bit touched by their concern, but mostly embarrassed about his own display of weakness. "I do not mean to cause alarm by being cryptic. I spoke offhandedly, if there is indeed a danger, there is nothing we can do about it yet. You are all doing a fine job, and I advise you not to let worry disrupt your duties. Please pardon my absence."
"May I accompany you to the repair ward, sir?" offered Cloud Man, hovering over to Ra Thor's side like a worried mother hen.
"It really is unnecessary, but thank you," replied Ra Thor, allowing Cloud Man to follow him out of the command center.
Ra Thor walked stiffly down the corridor, his armor still tingling with pent up static energy, his mind racing—elation followed by crushing frustration, like holding on to the scattering remnant of a dream—something dying in a vast network—a brief link— but there were too many ideas at once, he couldn't process it all. The only thing he knew for sure was something devastating must have just happened somewhere to something he knew was Evil, and that was comforting.
But where are you now? he wondered.
"That was odd. I hope everything is alright. He sounded a bit strained," remarked Tornado Man.
"He will be alright, Duo will see to that," said Sword Man confidently. "He's just overworked."
"I was just telling him the other day to give his processors a break," concurred Centaur Man. "Even superintendents need to take time to recharge."
"Ever get the feeling Ra Thor and Duo are keeping secrets?" asked Wind Man aloud, scratching his domed head.
The officers looked at one another, then shrugged.
"Right, well, let's get on with it," said Tornado Man, calling them to attention.
On the next Season of Mega Man Recut…
Drama...suspense...thrills…betrayal...and a plot to take over the world with a monster movie? Mega Man's got his work cut out for him this time as Dr. Wily's schemes become crazier, but he's not the only one with problems as the Syndicate continues to conspire against Proto Man, meanwhile Roll continues on her voyage of self-discovery and gaining respect as a hero. New robots, new equipment, new adventures, tune in next time for Mega Man Recut: Season 2!
The next season will be posted as a new fanfic, so if you're not following me already keep an eye on my profile for the update.
As many of you suspected, the true underlying villain of this episode, who long ago corrupted and destroyed the Vanuu'bi, was Ra Moon, the ancient alien supercomputer antagonist from Super Adventure Rockman. What this means for the history of Recut's universe will be further explained in a mini-prequel episode that I'm currently writing, and will also be posted as its own separate fic. Ra Moon will appear 'in the metal' in another Recut episode.
And as far as the line lifted from Bro Bots goes…I wouldn't read too much into it, other then don't expect to see a 'sea of boiling wax' in the climax of Recut's Bro Bots, because when it comes down to it, while the visual is solid, boiling wax isn't anywhere near hot enough to harm titanium robots, making it fundamentally kinda silly. …actually, while we're being technical, I guess I should address that lava isn't hot enough to melt titanium either, though I'd imagine it could do substantial damage to the non-titanium parts...
And now, some 'thank you's are in order (please kick me if I forget anyone):
It's a tough job leaving a review, and I really appreciate all the insight, time and effort everyone has put into leaving feedback. It really means the world to me, thanks for motivating me to keep at it! In order of appearance, a special thank you to Kuraselache, RapidCheetah, lalalei, RedemptionWarrior, Teribane, DestinyZX, MegaBauer, Rialla, Qqtt991, Gancena, WindGoddess Rune, tourise, Akainokami, PurinJPG, Sparxthehdgehog, MegaManV, Little Kunai, Spiked Dragon, Sailor Taichichi Vegeta, Ellen, Imperius-Rexford, Sky Daybreak, and every 'guest!'
You guys rock!
To everyone watching my tumblr, thanks for liking my posts and encouraging me to continue this project, special thanks to Gancena for getting me hooked, and then Gancena again, tripleshades, teribane, nancia, lalalei, rubyspearsrollfan, shinypawniard, srn09neptune, johnythemic, and everyone else who follows the blog that I didn't mention!
I'd also like to thank the people who work on the Mega Man Recut tvtrope page. Without your efforts, it wouldn't be there. Special thank you to lalalei, Centimental, Gancena, Oreochan, chopshop, TVRulezAgain for writing such an impressive page and keeping it going.
And to everyone who follows or has favorited Mega Man Recut: Season 1 on FFN, or is just a visitor with a bookmark,
THANKS FOR READING, SEE YOU NEXT SEASON