I could never stand seeing people die. But that time on the Rainbow Bridge, the first time I saw someone die up close, was the worst.
I was there fighting Metal, who'd already sawed away half of one of the pillars below the bridge deck. It was evening rush hour, and it was January, and if the pillar gave out hundreds of cars and the people in them would plunge into the frigid Tokyo Bay.
I made short work of Metal, and had just downloaded his weapon data and was starting to breathe a sigh of relief, when suddenly the bridge deck lurched to the left with a deep low groan. I lost my balance and hit the ground. Cars slid toward me, and I had to roll out of the way to avoid getting pinned against the guardrail. People were screaming and snapped suspension cables were swinging around everywhere.
Finally, slowly, the movement came to a stop. I stood up, holding onto one of the loose cables for support. The whole deck, for as far as I could see, was leaning sideways by twenty degrees. I wondered how long the guardrails were going to hold with so many vehicles pressed up against them… and whether the pillar was going to collapse completely.
"Everyone, get out of your cars!" I shouted. I started pounding on people's windows. "Get off the bridge. Hurry!"
I pulled a few reluctant drivers out onto the pavement, but most folks didn't need me to tell them what to do. They got out. Some people, whose cars had gotten sandwiched between the guardrail and another vehicle, had to squeeze out through their windows - but they managed. Soon a long line of people was half-running, half-crawling toward land. For a while I helped an old man along who was having a little trouble navigating the grade. All in all the evacuation was going smoothly. But then, far ahead of me on the lower deck, I saw something that made me gasp: a gnarled, meter-wide gap in the outer wall of the pedestrian walkway, and at the bottom edge of that gap, a pair of hands clinging on for dear life.
I leapt down to the lower deck and ran toward the hands. How long had they been holding on there? A few minutes at least. Some poor pedestrian must have been swept off their feet when the bridge deck had shifted, grabbed on to the edge, called out for help - and in the panic that had followed, no one had noticed. No one but me. I ran faster, as fast as I could. I was fifty meters away, forty, thirty… Just a few more seconds and… Then a scream rang out from below - a young, female scream - and the hands disappeared.
I reached the gap and looked down. I saw the look of terror on the woman's face for just a second before it shrank and was engulfed by the bay.
No time to think - I dived in head-first after her. With my armor on the force of the impact stung only a little, and the water was cold, but not shockingly cold. At first I was certain I could find her. But once I opened my eyes, I realized how murky the water was - even my night vision couldn't give me more than a meter of visibility. I swam along at a frantic clip. Was I even headed in the right direction? How long could humans hold their breath again? One minute? Two? I started counting, and with each second I became more and more desperate. I started flailing my arms around in hopes of bumping into a leg or a torso, but all they met with was more water.
Then I realized I'd better check the surface. Maybe she was up there treading water. I swam upward, felt the cold air hit my face, jerked my head all around. That's when I saw her, floating face-down, not moving. Not a person anymore. Just a body.
There are a lot of things about life that don't make any sense to me. Maybe that's just because I'm not human, but I'm not so sure. The strangest thing of all to me is that, when something terrible happens to someone, the rest of the world doesn't stop and take notice. Like when you drive past a fatal car accident and that happy song on the radio keeps on playing, or how, that night, as I dragged the dead woman to shore, the leaning bridge's eponymous rainbow lights were still shining their cheerful blue, yellow, and red.
In Tokyo, people think of me as this wonderful life-saving machine. They don't know I have feelings of my own… let alone that I might sometimes be the one who needs help.
Some first responders found me on the shore, performing CPR on the woman, and they thanked me, pronounced her dead, and zipped her into a body bag. I heard them saying things to each other like "broken neck" and "died when she hit the water," which cleared up my confusion about what had happened to her after her fall, but didn't make me feel any better.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I'd never lost someone like that before, someone I'd purposely tried to save. My face didn't show it, but on the inside I was seething with anger at myself. My mind was stuck on those last few seconds on the bridge… how I could have saved her if only I could have run a little faster.
I felt like a failure. Nobody asked me if I was okay.
It's all right. I'm used to that. When I'm on the job, I prefer to think of myself as a life-saving machine. It's much easier for me to do my work if I just bottle up my feelings until I get home.
That's why I always like going home. At home, they know.
I was standing there outside the front door, howling with rage. Roll threw her arms around me. "What's the matter? Are you hurt? On the news they said you saved the Rainbow Bridge from collapsing… Oh, come on, Rock, say something... you're scaring me!"
A hug and an outpouring of concern from Roll was what I needed, but in that frantic and confused moment it wasn't what I wanted. That's why, when Dr. Light appeared in the foyer, looking at me questioningly with his brow furrowed, I wriggled out of my sister's arms and into his. The sight of my creator seemed to hold out the promise of a solution - and a solution, quick and definitive, was what I was grasping for.
"Rock, what is it? What happened?"
"Dr. Light," I cried, "I need you to make me faster."
It was an operation which I could stay awake for if I wanted - numb, but fully conscious, and sitting upright - and so that's what I chose to do. I hadn't been this excited about an upgrade since I became Rockman, and it was the first time I'd been able to watch a procedure on myself with my own eyes. I kept leaning forward to get a better look, and Dr. Light had to keep gently reminding me to hold still.
"Now, Rock," he said, "if I hang a couple of mirrors here so you can see what I'm doing, would it help you to stay put?"
It helped. But after a while, even though I wasn't fidgeting anymore, Dr. Light seemed worried that my excitement in itself was problematic.
"Let me remind you again," he said, "to try not to get your hopes up too much. You'll probably notice you've gotten a little faster, but the difference will be slight. You have limitations. We all do. Your CPU can only handle so much. We've got to keep your systems in balance so that you can keep functioning properly and stay safe. So, trust me when I say that this upgrade is the best I can do for now.
"Well, Rock, do you understand?" And he gave me a hard stare.
I nodded. I did understand - at least, I thought I did.
But no matter how many times Dr. Light tells me something, if I really don't want to believe it, then I don't believe it… that is, until I experience it for myself. Maybe that's another quirk of mine which I can chalk up to being a robot rather than a human being. Anyway, as I slid down from the table, what I wanted to believe was that Dr. Light had dryly understated the effects of my upgrade in order to set me up for a thrilling surprise. I imagined myself racing around the outside of the house at the speed of sound, and at some point glancing back to see Dr. Light looking out the window at me with a mischievous smirk, yelling "gotcha!"
What actually happened, though, was exactly what Dr. Light had cautioned me about. I'd expected to feel lighter on my feet right away - but I felt the same as always. I went outside and ran, and when I reached my top running speed, it did seem I could go a little faster than before... only a little. My upgrade, modest though it was, probably could save lives in the future - but not nearly as many, I was sure, as if I could run at the speed I'd hoped for. And it wouldn't have been enough to save the woman on the bridge: somehow, I was certain of that. I couldn't hide my disappointment.
"How'd it go out there?" said Dr. Light when I came back - then, seeing the look on my face, suddenly steered me into the house and sat me down on the living room sofa.
"Rock, I've been a fool. I only realized just now, when I watched you out there… how sad you looked… still look…
"After what you witnessed last night, I was desperate to do something to make you feel better… and so I didn't think twice about giving you the upgrade you asked for. But now I'm afraid that, by doing it, I've sent you the wrong message… that the way you were before wasn't good enough...
"You saw somebody die. That hurt you, deeply. Making you faster, or stronger or whatever, isn't going to take that pain away…"
But I closed my eyes and shook my head. "No, you're wrong. It'll help. It will." I didn't want to open up about how I felt, and I didn't want Dr. Light's sympathy. What I wanted was a measurable, quantifiable solution - the solution which I'd already decided would help me. But Dr. Light went on. He kept talking about how what had happened on the bridge wasn't my fault… and how what made me special was not how powerful I was in my armor, but the goodness of my heart...
...My heart? Where? Could he point to it? He couldn't mean that organ which humans have which pumps blood - I don't have one of those. Is my "heart" - the thing which makes me good - in my CPU somewhere? If he opened up my head, could I look at it? A part of me wanted to argue with him about all of this, but I was getting restless after sitting on the sofa for so long - and more importantly, a plan of action had just popped into my mind which excited me so much that I was now content to let him believe I'd heard and understood everything he'd said, if it meant that our talk would be finished sooner.
At last he released me with a final hug - but by now, my mind was so far away that I barely noticed it. The rest of the day passed by in a kind of blur. The only thing I could think about was my plan and how I'd accomplish it. And that night Roll, wanting to comfort me, put her futon next to mine and promised to stay awake with me until I'd drifted off into sleep mode, just like she'd done the night before - but that annoyed me, because my plan depended on her falling asleep first. So I closed my eyes and lay very still, hoping to fake her out, waiting until I could be sure she was no longer conscious. I'd never hidden my thoughts from my sister before, and doing it now made me feel strange and mean and guilty.
As I lay there, I found myself replaying the scene on the bridge over and over again in my head, even though it hurt. The first time, I remembered it exactly as it had happened: running toward the hands, then running even faster, then seeing the hands slip from the ledge, hearing the woman's scream, and reaching the ledge just in time to see her plunge into the water. The next time, I imagined myself running a little faster and getting a little closer to her, but the end result was the same. And the next time I was even faster, and got even closer, but she fell again regardless. I went through this painful cycle a few more times, and in the last one, finally, I reached her - and I pulled her up with all my strength, bracing my feet against the intact portion of the wall. She wriggled up onto the walkway, gasping and shaking, but alive. A shudder of joy ran through me.
"Thank goodness you're safe!"
When she sat up and looked at me, her face beaming with relief and gratitude, I realized my eyes were wet - my real eyes, I mean.
As I looked up at the darkened ceiling of my bedroom, I blinked back the tears. I knew very well, rationally, that nothing I could do would bring the woman back to life. But there were others, just as precious as her, whom I would rescue - I could already see their blurry faces peering back at me from the future - if, and only if, I did the thing I was planning to do tonight. At least, that's what I'd convinced myself.
For a moment fear overwhelmed me - fear of doing something which Roll, and Dr. Light, who both seemed to want the best for me, would certainly disapprove of. I'd never felt so alone. But in the next moment I snapped out of it. There was no use staying here feeling conflicted and sorry for myself. I had a job to do and people to help.
Very carefully, I pried my hand out of Roll's. She didn't stir, so I got up and slowly tiptoed out of the room. In the hallway I pressed my ear up against Dr. Light's bedroom wall, and found the deep and regular snoring I'd been hoping to hear. Down in the lab - which, as you probably already guessed, was my destination - the Numbers stood still and quiet in their charge pods, eyes closed, all asleep. No one was going to stop me.
I climbed up onto the same work table where I'd spent the afternoon. The mirrors which Dr. Light had kindly provided for my convenience were still hanging from the ceiling. I positioned my legs under them, wedged some cushions behind my back, booted up Dr. Light's netscreen, and opened up the toolkit. Now, for just a few minor tweaks to the new parameters which Dr. Light had programmed for me earlier that day, along with the accompanying manual adjustments to my motor circuits, based on the principle that if "a little" is good, then "a lot" must be even better…
When I jumped down from the table this time, I felt markedly different. Gravity seemed to have loosened its hold on me. Walking now took minimal effort - in fact, I felt almost as though I were being pushed along by some outside force. I couldn't stop grinning - I felt I'd been very clever. There was a boundless supply of energy stored up in my legs, clamouring for release… but I was too afraid of being found out to venture outside and indulge myself with a run through the woods. That night, I had no choice but to force myself back upstairs and into my futon, where I tossed and turned for hours, restless yet happy, hoping that my chance to demonstrate my newfound swiftness would come sooner rather than later. And again I daydreamed about the woman, and now she wasn't hanging onto the ledge or crouched on the bridge anymore. She was sitting comfortably on the floor right next to me in my bedroom, shining like an angel or a bodhisattva, exuding perfect peace.
The next two days were quiet: no Wily-bot sightings in Tokyo. The city hunkered down under a series of torrential rains, odd weather for that time of year. On the third day the sun came out, and almost as soon as it did Dr. Light got a call saying that Heat had been spotted in a suburb in Ota, trying to set apartment buildings on fire.
I teleported in with more than my usual excitement, and much less than my usual fear. When I arrived the first floor of one building was already burning, and firemen were scrambling to rescue residents from the upper floors while also trying to keep Heat at bay with their water hoses - a juggling act which they wouldn't be able to keep up for long.
Good thing they called me, I thought, and I took off at a run toward Heat - an exhilaratingly fast run. I shouted out to him in a more cheerful voice than I intended, and he turned in my direction. I fired. He fired back - a long stream of flames, which I swiftly ducked away from. This was going to be an easy fight, I thought. At my usual speed I'd be sure to take some damage, but now I could outrun his every shot. I fired again, and again. I glanced hopefully at the firefighters, who were taking full advantage of the time I'd bought them by focusing all their manpower on putting out the blaze. I evaded another attack from Heat, feeling light and fearless and invincible.
And then I collapsed and my face hit the pavement. For a split second I thought I'd only tripped over something, but when I tried to stand up I realized with horror that I couldn't move my legs. My body from the waist down was a deadweight.
I couldn't understand what was happening. I pushed myself up by my arms, again and again, only to find I could do nothing more. Fire lapped at my armor and I registered a shock of pain - and I turned and saw Heat approaching, and my heart lurched. I didn't want to teleport out of there and leave the firemen all alone without my support, but I felt I had no choice. It was no use trying to fight like this. If only I could get back to Dr. Light quickly for repairs, then I might be able to make it back here in time to help…. I tried to access my teleport subroutine - only to find, with a shock, that it was offline and just as useless as my legs.
"Mayday! Mayday!" I shouted, as I fired a series of blasts at Heat in hopes of holding him off. "Dr. Light, I can't run, can't stand… can't move! Can't teleport… what do I do?"
"Rock? What's happened to you?" Dr. Light's astonished voice called back at me from the inside of my helmet. "Right. Don't panic. You're on a street… so how about escaping under it?"
"Under it?… ah, ah!" Another blast of heat. A grim status report flashed across my fighting form interface. I was too unnerved to work out what Dr. Light had meant by "escaping under the street," so I merely obeyed. I called up the weapon data I'd copied from Metal three days before, and sliced a hole in the concrete all around me… nevertheless, I wasn't mentally prepared for the sudden drop that followed. With a gasp I splashed into a swollen river of ice-cold water and was swept away, down, down, into a deep and noisy darkness. I waved my arms around miserably, trying to catch hold of something, anything that could slow me down. The current tossed my half-paralyzed body around like a rag doll. Under the water I couldn't speak, couldn't scream... but I could still just barely discern the voice of Dr. Light in my ear.
"I've got a good read on your location, Rock," he said. "You're in a storm drain that empties into the bay. Thanks to all the rain we had these past two days, it'll carry you far away from danger in no time. Just go with the flow - we'll find you."
Normally I would have been reassured by those words. But as the current pushed me onwards, it gave me no relief to know that I was heading toward safety, toward Dr. Light, and toward home. The only thing on my mind was the scene of terror I'd fled, and what was now going to become of the firefighters, the building, and the people still trapped inside. Suddenly I wanted more than anything to go back and fight Heat even if I had to do it lying down, and even if it meant he'd destroy me. But my chance to fight to the end was long gone; there was no going back now. Why had I been such a coward? All around me was cold and dark, but the fire raged in my mind's eye - and when I dared to let my imagination peer inside the building, to witness the fate of those people I'd abandoned, I wished I'd never looked.
Why does the universe have to work like this? Why can't fire and smoke have the ability to choose what they consume? If they could choose, I believe they would only burn up dry grass or trees that are already dead. Or buildings that no one calls home or needs anymore. Never things that can feel pain, and certainly never people. Roll thinks I'm wrong; she counters that people have always been able to choose, and since some of them choose to harm others despite having the option not to, we couldn't expect any better from things like fire and smoke. I'm afraid she's probably right, but I prefer to believe what I believe.
All my life I've wanted to see some kind of proof that the universe cares. I haven't found it. And whenever I've looked for it and not found it, I've taken that as a sign that I have to care more, in order to help make up for the lack. Of course other people should care more, too, but I can't control them. I can control me. But it's not enough to care - I also have to act. That's why I became Rockman, and that's why I want to get better at my job… that's why I wanted to become faster after that woman died at Rainbow Bridge, and that's why I disobeyed Dr. Light and widened the parameters he'd set for me during my upgrade three days ago...
My mind was running along like that, although at a quicker pace than I'm telling you now. But anyway, when I got to the part about having disobeyed Dr. Light, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a connection between my secret self-repairs and the stubborn refusal of my legs to work. I remembered Dr. Light's warning, each word of which seemed like an accusing finger pointed in my direction: you have limitations.. We've got to keep your systems in balance so that you can keep functioning properly...
So that was it. By trying to push myself beyond my limitations, I'd sabotaged my own ability to move around and fight. Many people in Ota had died today because of what I'd done. I searched and searched for some other explanation that would exonerate me but couldn't find it. There was no way for me to wriggle out from under the weight of the shame I felt. My mind became unbearably noisy, and it dragged me to a terrible place. I thought I saw the Rainbow Bridge woman floating ahead of me in the water: pale like a ghost, her clothes billowing, her dead eyes wide with frozen terror. I closed my eyes, but she was still there.
After a while the current slowed, and my body came to rest on the floor of the bay. I only knew which way was "up" by feeling the sand against my back - I was in a place so deep and dark that no sunlight could reach me. Alone, helpless, in the pitch black, I lost track of time. I was cold and miserable, but retreating into my mind only deepened my misery. I couldn't stop wishing for impossible things: that fire and smoke cared, or that I could go back in time and undo the damage I'd done to my legs. At my lowest, I wished that Dr. Light had never even built me.
Then I heard Dr. Light's voice in my ear.
"We're coming, Rock… just be patient a while longer… We're on the beach now… We have your location… I'm sending Guts out to get you…"
I should have felt relieved, but instead I only felt ashamed that I'd needed to be rescued. When Guts's headlamp found me a few minutes later, I thought for a second of signaling no thanks, then starting on the herculean task of pulling myself by my arms all the way to the surface. Luckily for me, though, he plucked me off the seafloor before that idea gained any traction.
After a while I saw a waving halo of sunlight above us. It brightened, and then I felt the cold wind on my face and realized that the water was below me. The waves were crashing all around Guts's legs as he pressed on toward shore.
"Almost there, little buddy," he said.
"Thanks," I said. It was good to hear my own voice again, and having Guts for company was a huge improvement over having no company at all. I felt my spirits lifting already in spite of myself. I turned and looked ahead into the blinding afternoon sun in hopes of spying Roll and Dr. Light - but to my surprise the beach was completely filled with people. Hundreds of people, cheering and holding signs, with their hair and winter scarves flying in a frigid gale.
"They rolled out the red carpet for you," said Guts.
"I'll say." The sight of the crowd made me so happy that I almost forgot about the scene at Ota and my secret guilt. But then, when the crowd parted and Dr. Light and Roll ran toward me, I remembered and my terror came flooding back.
Guts deposited me on the sand, and suddenly Dr. Light was sitting next to me, cradling my upper half on his knees. Roll smothered me in hugs, and then peeled some seaweed from my foot and tossed it back into the water.
"Dr. Light, my legs…"
"Don't worry, Rock. We'll get that figured out. You're safe - that's all that matters."
"The people trapped in that apartment building… and the firefighters... after I escaped, what happened to them?"
Dr. Light bowed his head. "It seems a lot of people died there today," he said, then quickly added in a low voice, "and it wasn't your fault that you couldn't save them, Rock... if that's what you're thinking."
"I think it might have been my fault," I whispered. "I think I've done something terrible."
Dr. Light and Roll gave me puzzled looks.
"Dr. Light," shouted a piercing voice behind us, "tell us how you're feeling right now." I looked up to see a camera closing in, and a microphone was held in front of his face.
"Um..." Dr. Light looked down at me, then around at the happy crowd, then up at the camera. He seemed at a loss to understand how he was supposed to feel right now. "Great," he said, in a voice that didn't sound all that great. "I feel great."
"There are witness reports saying that Rockman just collapsed, for no apparent reason," said a different voice. Soon another camera loomed over us, and another mike. "Why do you think that happened?"
"It's possible I may have made a mistake during his most recent upgrade. But I won't know until I investigate."
Suddenly I couldn't endure being in that crowd any longer. They were cheering for me as if I'd been a hero… but I didn't feel like a hero. I felt criminally, recklessly foolish. The fact that Dr. Light had so casually accepted the blame for my mistake amplified my shame. My feelings were piling up, and I had no way to vent them - it was like a balloon being overinflated, or a buildup of trapped seismic energy along a fault line just before disaster. This life-saving machine wanted desperately to be a person again.
"Get me out of here, Dr. Light," I whispered. "I want to go home."
A slight nod was all it took for me to know that he understood. Wordlessly, he signaled for Guts to scoop me up, and the four of us made a hasty exit. Reporters followed us most of the way to our Light Labs truck, shouting out their questions. Dr. Light parried them all with the excuse that he was eager, for everyone's sake, to get home and get Rockman's repairs started as soon as possible. All the while he was stealing glances at my face, and seemed to be desperately trying to understand what it was showing him.
Soon Roll had jumped up into the truck, and Guts, after tucking me in next to her, had obediently curled up in the back and gone into sleep mode. The force of Dr. Light driving us away at top speed pushed us deep into our seats. Then at last, with the autodrive on and the freeway ahead of us, I had the privacy I needed to let my feelings out. Dr. Light and Roll pressed in close as I confessed everything, and then stayed beside me as I cried and cried until my water reserves were empty.
It took Dr. Light four days to repair the damage I'd done to my own motor program, even though he started as soon as we got home and barely slept or ate until he'd finished. It was a complicated process. Unbeknownst to me, my edits had also interfered with several other seemingly unrelated processes, like my teleport subroutine, and some sections of code had to be rewritten from scratch.
That meant that, for four days, Wily's bots ran amok in Tokyo without me to stop them. Dr. Light sent the Numbers to assist the military in trying to keep them at bay, but that didn't prove as effective as he'd hoped. More people died, and Ice and Elec were sent back to us in pieces. My distress was at an all-time high. Instead of one woman's ghost haunting me, I now had a whole crowd of them. I thought I could see their many eyes peering down at me from the ceiling. They wouldn't be at peace until I put a stop to the chaos in the city - but for what seemed to me like an eternity I was stuck on the work table unable to do anything. And I had no one but myself to blame.
At the end of this story, I wish I could say that some amazing thing happened which completely freed me of my feelings of anger and disappointment in myself. But instead of one big amazing thing, there were a lot of small ordinary things - and instead of "completely freeing" me, they only made me feel a little better, and they took a long time to work.
One of the things that helped was that Dr. Light never scolded me at all for disobeying him that night in the lab. I'd scolded myself too much already, he said. And he said a lot of other things during my four days on the table, like "I'm proud of you," and "you're a net good in this world," which sank in a little, despite my efforts to resist them.
Of course another thing that helped was that, as soon as my repairs were finished, I went back to Tokyo and destroyed all of the remaining Wily-bots. But I guess that's a separate story in itself.
And another thing that helped was that, after that, Roll dragged her futon into my bedroom one night, saying that she couldn't sleep. She lay down next to me and said, all of a sudden, "don't ever die. I couldn't stand it if you died."
That had an effect on me. It wasn't exactly a lightbulb moment. It was more like a dimmer-switch-slowly-being-turned-up period. I started to realize that always putting myself last wasn't as selfless as I'd thought. So I raised myself up a little relative to the people around me. Not all the way up to the same level - otherwise I wouldn't be able to keep doing what I do - but enough that I don't beat myself up as much when I make a mistake. When I make a mistake now, I learn from it and just keep going. I'm going to keep going like this forever. I'm never going to stop - at least, not as long as Dr. Wily is around.
I still remember the woman from the Rainbow Bridge sometimes. Sometimes I remember seeing her fall, but other times I daydream that I reach her and pull her up alive onto the walkway. In fact, it's one of my favorite things to daydream about. I imagine that her name was Rina, that she was a university student, and that she had a special talent for riding unicycles. And I imagine that, after the Rainbow Bridge was rebuilt, she rode across it on her unicycle.
I don't know where the unicycle came from, but it makes me happy to think about it. If I wanted, I could look around in the news archives to find out who the woman really was... but I think that might be hard for me to handle, so I'll just stick to my own story.