"It's a lucky thing that I picked up your distress signal, Roll," Duo said. "You see, I received it just as I happened to be traveling through the Kuiper Belt en route to the wormhole that leads to… I believe you call it Messier 81?" The inside of my head tickled a bit as Duo's mind leafed gently through my database of pre-installed but seldom-used vocabulary.
"Um, right," I said, rubbing at my temples. "Messier 81, the galaxy?"
"Terrible things are afoot there. Without my aid, the entire galaxy will be overrun with Evil Energy. In fact, I dared to look at it with my own eyes just before I entered your solar system. It was a horrifying sight, like a blob of ink spreading through water. I shudder to imagine what another 11.74 million years have done.
"But since, happily, I did receive your message, and I was in the area already, I couldn't say no to the chance to be of assistance to my friends on Earth, even if my visit must be brief. I only hope I'm not too late to help you. How long have you been trying to reach me?"
"About seven months," I said.
"I see." He hung his head dolefully. "The battle has already concluded, I take it?"
"There was no battle. There hasn't been anything like that around here in a long time. Dr. Wily's reformed, and Rock doesn't fight anymore."
"Then what could be the problem?"
I drew back from the overenthusiastic embrace I'd planted around Duo's left leg. His talk of millions of years and the fates of entire galaxies had left my own problems feeling small in comparison. But the way he looked expectantly down at me, head cocked a little to one side, was reassuring. He owed a debt of gratitude to Dr. Light for repairing him many years ago, and seemed eager to repay it. I was equally eager to give him the opportunity.
"When I first tried to call you, Rock and I had just learned that we were to be destroyed."
"But why, Roll? You haven't done something wrong since we last met, have you?"
"No, we haven't. But some other robots caused a lot of trouble."
"What would other robots causing trouble have to do with you?"
"I suppose that, since we're robots too, people are afraid we might also cause trouble someday."
"A peculiar thing for them to think," said Duo. "Though I've indeed heard this planet has a problem with generalizing. May I?" He pressed a big, firm hand against my forehead, and I didn't object. Again the inside of my head tickled, and this time my memory bank was opened, and recollections new and old were sifted through, some of which I'd never expected to share with anyone else. For a moment I thought of asking Duo to stop. But increasingly I became aware not only of being seen from the inside out, but of being judged favorably. My discomfort faded away and was replaced by a great sense of relief, as if I'd just confided a lifetime's worth of pent-up feelings to someone I could trust completely.
"It's an abomination! A grave miscarriage of justice!" Duo stomped his foot, and the whole floor quaked beneath us. "All your life you have consistently and tirelessly worked for the good. Roll, you must take me to these people who wish to destroy you. They need to know that a great punishment awaits them if they do it."
"Punishment?" I said, taking a tentative step back. "You mean you're going to hurt them?"
"Not I," said Duo. "I'm not allowed to harm organic beings. But the universe has a way of repaying us for our deeds. Now, where are these evil-doers? Perhaps they can be warned..."
"Thanks, Duo, but that isn't why I called you." Without thinking I'd lifted up my hands, as if I, a fraction of his size, was going to try to physically stop him from charging out the door. Although his righteous anger on my behalf was vindicating, I knew no human in this day and age would take well to being given a talking-to by a giant war-bot from space.
"I called," I said, "because I wanted you to take Rock away with you. I don't need you to fight or persuade anyone. Just get Rock out of here. Save him…"
I looked down at the floor, suddenly unable to speak. Duo's kind eyes were on me, peering in, seeing the thoughts that were too painful for me to put into words.
"You've lost hope that you can live peacefully in this world."
"You feel like a failure because you haven't been able to to protect your family"
"You can say that again."
"Dr. Light fought to keep you alive, and it broke him. He's in the hospital now, dying, and you feel responsible."
"And if Rock dies next week, it will be the worst thing that's ever happened to you."
I raised my head, incensed. "Don't let it happen, Duo! After all he's done for us, me, everybody… to see him treated like that… I couldn't stand it! It's not fair."
"The place I'm going is full of danger," Duo said, "and I won't take Rock somewhere he doesn't want to go. But if he's willing, I'll do it. Of course, I don't think he'd want to leave you here alone. Wouldn't you come with us, Roll?"
"I'd prefer to stay and take care of Dr. Light until the end," I said. "But if Rock refused to go without me, of course I'd go too."
"All right. Shall I speak with Rock now? Where is he?"
"I... don't know. I haven't seen him for two days."
Duo gave me a surprised look. Somehow, he'd missed that important detail when he'd peered into my thoughts. Slowly, he knelt down and put a hand on my shoulder. His eyes searched mine.
"Then tell me what you do know."
"Two days ago, Dr. Light's last appeal to keep us alive was turned down. After we heard the news, Rock said he was going to go for a walk to clear his head. He likes to be alone whenever he's in a dark mood, so I didn't think much about it. I saw him go down the gravel road in front of our house and into the woods, and he never came back.
"Can you find him, Duo? Isn't there anything you can do?"
"Of course," Duo said, and smiled a little. "I scanned him once. His life force shines brightly. It's impossible to miss. If he's alive on this planet, I'll find him."
He closed his eyes and became still and solemn. I drew closer, and for what seemed like an eternity kept my sight locked on his face, searching in vain for any information his expression might reveal before he was able to say it out loud. When he bowed his head, my heart sank.
"I'm too late," Duo said at last, and his face went dark. "If only I'd arrived two days ago…"
"What do you mean, Duo?"
"I can see his final movements. On the night of June 7th he traveled southward toward the ocean. He stopped there, faded, and then went out."
Life force, shines brightly, faded, went out. These weren't the sort of terms I was used to hearing, and I didn't know what to make of them. "No." I shook my head. "Rock's asleep, or in shutdown mode somewhere. Maybe, if you look again…"
"Your brother is gone."
"You're not saying he's dead?"
"He's no longer in this world."
I shook my head again, harder this time. "I don't understand. It doesn't make any sense."
"I wish I'd been able to give you better news." Duo let out a deep sigh. "This is a great tragedy. He was a powerful force for good on this planet."
Was. Past tense. For a long while I didn't answer. I found myself staring at the floor, tracing the lines with my eyes across the checkerboard linoleum. "It doesn't make any sense," I said again. But the sight of Rock's Yomiuri Giants jersey draped forlornly over the back of Dr. Light's desk chair jolted me back to life.
"You said he went toward the ocean? But what happened to him there, Duo? Give me the specifics."
"I've told you everything I know."
"Did somebody harm him? Did he harm himself, somehow?"
Duo didn't answer, but he put a consoling hand on my arm.
Reality was getting its talons into me. My fingers, as if of their own accord, went up to my hair, ran through it, and pulled. I started pacing back and forth.
"Rock's really dead? Really?"
How much had I worried about my brother during his Rockman days, when I was painfully aware each time he said goodbye that he might be returned to me and Dr. Light in bits and pieces? Or more recently in these last few months, when I'd felt his expiration date hovering over my own neck like a guillotine's blade. And now the event I'd dreaded so much had already come to pass, and when it had happened I hadn't even noticed.
"What's wrong with me?" I said, to myself as much as to Duo. "What on earth have I been doing these past two days? The night he didn't come home, I should have been out there searching for him!
"Why'd I let him go, Duo? Well, I thought he'd come back… he's been in tight spots before and always come back… But why didn't I suspect it would be different this time? I've always fretted over him. Why not now? Why'd I let my guard down? I know why. Because Dr. Light is dying. It's too much to take in at once… Rightott, Tango, Rush, all my friends, already gone… It's too much...
"And to be honest, I…" I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my lips together. "I felt relieved when he went out for that walk. When we heard the judge's decision, Rock was angry that he wouldn't be able to protect me. Screaming, throwing pottery shards at the wall out in the garden… It was hard for me to see him in so much pain. When I didn't have to see it for a while, I… Finally, some peace, I thought… I thought it was going to be only a few hours... If I'd known he wouldn't come back, I…"
My thoughts became incoherent as my words. Duo looked down at me with pity in his eyes. His internal hydraulics hummed as he gently lowered himself to a sitting position on the floor.
"Two Earth days," he said, "can make such a world of difference to mortal creatures."
He held out one hand to me, inviting. And then, while the fate of Messier 81 hung in the balance, he, ancient Duo, wise Duo, sat beside me and patiently accepted the blows of my little fists on his chest, my shrieks of rage, my tears, and my childish demand for a never-ending embrace.
I don't know how long my fit went on. I only know that when it was over, and I had released Duo from his obligation to help me, as there was no longer anything he could do to help, we had gone outside, and the moon was high in the sky. Jupiter and Saturn had already risen over the tops of the trees.
"You said that the universe repays us for our deeds. But is there really justice in the universe, Duo?" I said. "It seems to me that things happen by random chance, and they aren't just at all. Like Dr. Light and Rock having to die, while Dr. Wily lives on in freedom and comfort."
"You see only one part of the picture, one little sliver of time, but there's a lot more. If that gives you any comfort, you're welcome to believe it."
I looked down, kicking at the grass. Perhaps Duo's words would give me some comfort later, but for now they meant nothing to me.
"Roll, I must be going, but I'm loath to leave you behind. I think you could be a great help to me on my mission to rescue Messier 81, although it would mean risking your life. If you'd prefer that to the certain death that awaits you here, I'll take you with me. Just say the word and we'll be off."
I looked up at the cold and distant stars, and let out a trembling sigh. "Are there many civilizations in Messier 81?"
"A great many, of all sorts. Organic, mechanical, and everything in between."
"What's it like traveling through a wormhole?"
"Thrilling, and a bit tingly." He cracked a smile. "Perhaps you'd like it."
Until now I hadn't given more than a cursory thought to my own end, officially scheduled for twenty days in the future. Why wouldn't I choose to escape it, if I could? When I'd shut down Rightott before he was taken away to be destroyed, I'd envied him. His sense of self was weak and he couldn't feel fear. "So, this is it, then?" he said, and gave Rock and me an enthusiastic handshake before climbing onto the table. "It's been a pleasure, you two. A genuine pleasure." No inclination that he was being wronged. If only Dr. Light could have made me like that, I'd thought, instead of this terrified, resentful mess.
I dreaded my expiration date. I dreaded the knock at the door I knew would come. With no family left to shut me down, I'd have to put my hope in the mercy of total strangers. Would they care enough to try to make me comfortable in my last conscious moments? Or would they talk about me as if I wasn't there? Would they throw my body in the back of their truck like a sack full of junk, like they'd done with Rightott? And then the worst part would come, the dismantling of all my thoughts and memories and feelings, of my hands with which I'd done my work and my arms with which I'd embraced the people I'd loved. The thought of it made me want to scream.
Of course I'd choose to escape it, if I could. But if I went with Duo tonight, I'd be forever haunted by the work I'd left unfinished. It was already hard enough imagining Dr. Light spending his last days of life alone in Room 148. It would be unbearable to never know what had happened to Rock. If I stayed here on Earth, assuming Dr. Light outlived me, I'd have almost three weeks to find out. I was willing to die for that chance.
"I can't go with you. I won't." I wiped the tears forming at the corners of my eyes. So this was it. I had chosen to die.
Duo gave me a hard look. "Are you sure, Roll? Once I leave this planet, it will be a long time before I'll be able to return, if I even return at all. By then it will be too late for you."
"Yes, I'm sure," I said, and made an effort to stand straight and tall. "I'm needed here."
Solemnly, Duo nodded. "I admire your courage. In that case, we won't meet again. Please give my regards to Dr. Light. Godspeed, Roll." He took a few slow steps back, and gave me a deep bow.
Seen through watery eyes, the rocket thrusters in the bottoms of Duo's feet were like two blurry suns. Soon he shrank to a pinpoint of orange in the sky and was gone, and I stood there on the gravel drive with nothing but the chattering frogs and crickets to keep me company.
This nocturnal calm was hateful to me now. I didn't want to go back to that silent, empty house. When finally I dragged myself inside I wandered the hall like a ghost, not knowing what to do with myself. But when I passed by the door to the basement, I caught another glimpse of Rock's Giants jersey. I hurried down the stairs and scooped it up in my hands. It had been lying forgotten on the back of Dr. Light's chair since spring at least, one little item among many which my brother and I hadn't bothered in recent months to tidy up. Cleaning had fallen by the wayside when Dr. Light's coma had begun to consume our lives.
I pulled the jersey over my head. I wanted to feel my brother's presence beside me, even just a little. It had once been his favorite article of clothing, a gift from the owner of the Yomiuri Giants himself when Rock had been invited to throw the first pitch at the national championship finals many years ago. Rock had loved it and worn it until the seams had started to come apart.
Once again my grief overwhelmed me, and I sank into the chair and let out a rageful howl. But I couldn't allow myself to stay this way. I closed my eyes and shook my head. Stop. Stop this. You have work to do. I wrapped my fingers around the seam of Rock's jersey, pulled it up to my face, dried my eyes with it.
I'm going to find out what happened to you. I promise.
Clues. I needed clues. I got up, climbed the stairs, and went into Rock's bedroom. It was the obvious place to start.
The floor looked like ground zero of a comic book shop explosion, with a rough foot-swept path to the futon which had not left the same spot on the tatami for weeks, or months. If I lifted it, I'd probably find mold and mites underneath. The mess was a microcosm of the rest of the house, the image of a once orderly and peaceful life in the process of being unraveled. It had been a long time since I'd noticed the entropy creeping in, or cared.
But there on top of the futon, screen facing up, was Rock's phone. The morning after he'd left for his walk and hadn't returned I'd called it and been surprised to hear it ringing from his room. I picked it up and unlocked it. The password had been "gogiants" for as long as he'd had it.
That was when I saw the message, dated June 7th, sent from an address I didn't recognize:
"I heard the news this evening. Tough break. I have a deal for you if you're interested. Your sister's safety, in exchange for the final week of your life. Let's talk details at my place. Your Uncle Al."
Rock's reply followed:
"On my way."
"You've got to be kidding me." Dr Wily? Now? What could he want with Rock now that Light Labs was defunct, his old rival was on his deathbed, and Dr. Light's creations were heading to the scrap heap? Of course, I'd never believed Dr. Wily's line about turning over a new leaf had been anything other than a ruse to allow him to spend his remaining years out of prison. But since his release he had indeed left us alone, and that had been good enough for me. I couldn't fathom why he'd want to harm Rock. That part, rationally, didn't compute. But the way I felt about it was crystal clear.
I'll kill him. I'll really kill that horrible old geezer.
I dropped the phone into my pocket and bolted out of the house. I don't think I even bothered to turn the lights off or lock the front door. Outside I made a beeline for my Vespa, shoved my helmet on, and sped away south, down from the mountains and into the city. My final destination was the housing projects in the industrial sector near the ocean, home to freeters, day laborers, pensioners, and a certain disgraced and hard up Albert Wily. Little by little the brilliant night sky, among which Messier 81 glimmered as a tiny pinprick of yellow, was engulfed by the lights of the refineries. By the time I reached Dr. Wily's door, I could see no more stars.