A beautiful woman with long blonde hair adjusted her designer sunglasses as she parked her red sports car and ejected a cassette from her dashboard player.
Tino’s new cassette is wonderful! she thought. Red should be proud of the way his little brother has moved on with his career since his days as a teen idol ended. He has a lot of integrity.
After shutting off the engine, she opened the car door and swung her legs out in one fluid motion. She was wearing a stylish red Manari suit with matching high heels.
The attractive blonde glanced across a level parking lot toward a terrific view of the city of Santa Monica, California. June Walker Robbins sighed with pleasure as she enjoyed the view.
An older man with a crisp uniform and a gun enjoyed his own view as he admired June. “Good morning, Dr. Robbins,” he said. “You sure are looking pretty today!”
She smiled with pleasure at the security guard and said, “Thank you, Adam. That is sweet of you to say.”
June had long ago moved beyond any superficial pleasure in her stunning looks. She was actually modest to a fault, especially when one considered her impressive physical abilities, brilliant mind, and membership in the world-famous team of adventurers known as the Challengers of the Unknown.
After his employer entered her private laboratory, Adam Slessinger frowned as he thought, Strange. When I took over for the last shift, Joe said Dr. Robbins was already at work!
June entered her lab and frowned as her trained scientist’s eye for order and detail noticed something was wrong. She ran one finger along a file cabinet drawer and pursed her lips in concern. The lock’s been forced! she realized.
Moving silently into the complex, June gasped as an unseen figure struck her from behind. At the same moment the lights went out. She knew that meant that at least one other intruder was in the large lab, since the light switch was in the other corner.
She rammed her elbow into the attacker’s body while kicking his legs with both high heels. A cry of pain echoed in the room as the shadowy figure reeled backward from June’s counterattack.
“I don’t know how you got in here, but you’d better give up now!” she said in a determined tone. “A girl who has faced down mad scientists, aliens, and giant gorillas from outer space isn’t likely to be stopped by a sneak thief!”
“How liberated are you, luv? Calling yourself a girl and all, at your age!”
The words came from the attacker, who now moved warily with the stealth and grace of a trained warrior. In the darkness June could barely make out a female whose blonde locks looked a lot like her own. She wore a purple jumpsuit.
“Ms. Robbins, we don’t want to hurt you!” began a man who stepped out of the next room.
“That’s Dr. Robbins, and don’t worry,” she said. “You can’t hurt me.” That’s it. Be defiant and aggressive, she thought as she tried to listen and look through the large area for any other intruders.
“Blast it, she wasn’t supposed to be here!” said the man.
Another man emerged with a box under one arm. “Our information wasn’t accurate,” he said. “We learned everything from her favorite breakfast to what shade of hair dye she uses, but we flubbed up her daily routine!”
“She was scheduled for a dental appointment!” snapped the thinner man. “Is it my fault she backed out of it?”
Blanching slightly at the hair color remark, June stood her ground and said, “I don’t know how you got past my guards, but you can’t get away with this!” They knew I was scheduled to see Dr. Blake, she thought. The fact is, I forgot all about it! That’s why I came here instead of heading into the city. Face it, Junie. Prof may be rubbing off on you when it comes to being the eccentric scientist!
Before she could react, the British woman had leveled a small gun at her and fired. June dived behind a desk and scattered the papers on top as she sailed for cover.
“Don’t kill her!” bellowed the bigger man.
The woman shrugged and said, “I’m a bit rusty! It has been years since I did this kind of thing!”
June crouched behind the desk and reached inside her purse. I’ve activated my signal device, she thought. Surely, the boys will get here soon, unless they’re out of the country or in some other dimension or time!
She hurled a cup across the room, then rolled across the floor before half-falling behind another table.
“What’s going on?” demanded the uniformed Adam as he rushed inside with his gun drawn.
The bigger intruder jumped forward and flattened the hapless security guard with one punch.
June saw the intruder’s face for the first time as light from the opened door streamed into the room. “Rocky?!” she gasped before something sharp struck her from the side, and she felt the room swirl before her eyes.
“She’ll be out cold in minutes. Destroy the security cameras and let’s get out of here!” ordered the thinner man.
June gasped as she looked at her arm. Needle mark? I’ve been drugged! she thought before passing out.
The intruders hurried to complete their mission, and in moments the lab was silent again as Adam and June lay stunned near the wreckage of the building’s surveillance system.
Later, June sat up slowly to find herself in a familiar room. She was within the enormous Colorado mountain headquarters she and her teammates used — Challengers Mountain.
“Glad to see you, Sleeping Beauty!” said a rugged-looking black-haired man. “I was about to try to wake you up with a kiss, but sourpuss over there nixed the idea.”
Remembering the attacker from the lab, June drew back for a moment, then returned to her position. She knew these were her partners and friends.
A slender man with brown hair and a serious manner leaned over and said, “June, I would have been remiss in my role as a scientist if I had allowed Rocky, here, to taint this facility with quaint fairy tale notions!” said Walter Mark “Prof” Haley.
Red Ryan, a restless man with fiery red hair and a boyish manner, grinned and said, “Besides, we didn’t want Rocky’s onion breath to send you back to dreamland!”
“June, you’re going to be fine,” said Prof. “You were injected with a greatly weakened form of a rather rare toxin. Your attackers clearly didn’t want to kill you, or they could have simply used a non-diluted version of the drug.”
Rocky Davis sat down on the side of the bed and said, “Look, doll, Prof used one of his chemical fix-its to make you as good as new, but what exactly went down at your place? The guard wasn’t exactly lucid. He’s OK and all, but he didn’t see anything before getting decked.”
“We received your emergency signal and rushed to your lab,” explained Red. “When we got there, we found you and your security guard. Prof figured he could do more for you here at Challengers Mountain, so we flew you back here.”
Rocky nodded and said, “Ace was so worried that he flew like a madman!”
At that moment, the team leader Ace Morgan entered the room and took June’s hand for a moment before releasing it. “June, I’m glad you’re awake,” said the blond pilot. “You gave us quite the scare, young lady!”
“Thanks for the rescue, but we have work to do!” said June. She stood up even as Prof and the others cautioned her to rest.
“I can’t rest,” she said. “You see, they took my current pet project. I saw one of them coming out of the room I was using to house the creation of the Athena System!”
Prof whistled softly and said, “Athena? That’s the name you gave to your autonomous computer operating system. No wonder you’re alarmed!”
Ace moved closer to steady the blonde Challenger as she made her way into an adjoining room where computers lined the walls and monitor screens filled one side.
“I heard the intruders say they were going to destroy my surveillance equipment,” she said. “But I’ve got the entire system linked to my equipment here. Even when the lab units are deactivated, the remote link remains in effect.”
“Great,” said Red. “So we can identify the creeps! I want to get my hands on them!”
“True, but I also want you to see them for a very specific reason,” said June.
Rocky frowned and said, “You mean we’ll recognize the goons?”
June smiled and said, “You could say that!” She deftly adjusted the controls, and images recorded yesterday in her lab appeared on the monitor. “This is from early yesterday morning,” she said excitedly. “The intruders are entering the lab. We should see them clearly.”
The four men gasped as they recognized the three people displayed on the monitor. “It’s us!” sputtered Rocky. “I mean, our doubles — you, Prof, and me!”
“Fascinating!” said Prof. “While there are natural differences in our sizes and manner of movement, otherwise these intruders are virtual doubles!”
“I saw the fake Rocky right before I was struck with the needle,” said June. “He was wearing some type of makeup. It was astonishingly effective. I almost believed he was the real Rocky Davis.”
“I suppose we know how they got in,” said Ace. “One of the guards merely let them inside, since to all intents and purposes they looked like June, Rocky, and Prof.”
“The fake me was British,” explained June. “I caught an accent and certain things in her diction that made that clear. Once I discovered them, of course, they weren’t concerned any longer about keeping up the pretense.”
Prof frowned as he leaned closer to the screen. “Can you increase resolution?”
“I can zoom in on the image,” she said. “They’re even wearing our jumpsuits. Of course, copying them would not be that hard. They referred to knowing a lot about me. They even knew I was scheduled for a dental exam. My being at the lab was a pure fluke.”
“The Prof double sure can pick a lock,” said Red. “He opened that file cabinet in seconds.”
Ace nodded and said, “They clearly knew exactly what they wanted. If you had not forgotten about your appointment, they might very well have walked right out without any trouble.”
“The British witch said something about being rusty when she took a shot at me!” said June.
Rocky jumped to his feet as the images continued and reached the point where his double knocked Adam out. “I’ve seen that before!” he cried.
Red rolled his eyes and said, “You dumb ape! I’d say it was in your mirror, although why a guy with a face like yours has mirrors is beyond me!”
“Funny as a crutch, circus boy,” said Rocky. “I meant I’ve seen that fighting technique before. The guy is a boxer. Maybe he is a bit slow, but he has ring savvy. I may not hang around the library all day or nothing, but I know boxing. I’ve seen that guy fight before. It’ll come to me in time.”
“Fake Challengers with knowledge of my life and our general demeanors and the skills to pull off such a theft,” said June. “We’re dealing with some dangerous characters!”
“What can they do with this Athena system?” asked Ace.
“It is designed to allow almost any system to operate self-sufficiently without human manipulation,” said June.
Ace nodded and said, “Of course! In aviation terms, it would be the ultimate autopilot. It would allow any craft to fly itself!”
“Careful, Ace,” said Red. “You might just become obsolete.”
Ace shook his head and said, “We’d better find those impostors, and fast, or the whole human race might become obsolete! Can you imagine what damage could be done with that kind of device?”
Times past, 1948:
A stocky man with a bulldog’s pugnacious stare sat behind a large desk in a luxurious office and stared over his interlocked fingers. He had just discarded a report that now rested on his desk.
The so-called Sentinels of Magic are dead, he thought. (*) The natural order is restored. I can’t imagine the world — or fate, or whatever the dreamers call it — would tolerate such aberrations to survive. Oh, I admired their courage, but the world doesn’t need flashy figures out of some movie serial. The world needs normalcy — normal living, normal dying. If things get out of hand, if so-called heroes arise, then how can an ordinary man like myself have any sense of security? I didn’t watch my father work himself to an early grave after getting us all here from Karnia to see such mystery-men draw away the hearts and minds of the press and the public.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: The Sentinels of Magic: 1948: Sacrifices Must Be Made.]
All power comes from one source — information. The way to preserve one’s own power is to cloak one’s self behind secrecy and to gather data like a spider spins a web. That’s why the immigrant child once known as Conanowski became simply Mr. Alex Conan. From the fur business, from the stock market, from a dozen other industries, I’ve amassed a fortune, but none of my money is as useful in and of itself as what it can buy is worth. Data, facts, secrets — those are the commodities that will enable me to remain secure in a world where mystery-men can exist.
He smiled as he looked at another folder. Heywood is not going to be a problem, he thought. I know his sudden appearance in 1942 as a man with no history shocked military intelligence at the time, but his subsequent secret one-man missions behind enemy lines ended in mid-1945. (*) Now our Commander Steel apparently wants nothing more to do with his other life. He wants to be a capitalist now that his war hero days are behind him. Well, I’ll help him along through one pawn or another as long as he stays out of that costume.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Crisis Point,” All-Star Squadron #50 (October, 1985).]
Mr. Conan thumbed a smaller document and frowned. Simon Stagg is becoming too wealthy. He is a wildcard. He finances some rather bizarre ventures, and some of them could lead to things I would not like at all. I’d better create a bit of financial trouble for him. That will occupy him and keep his pulp-fiction style jaunts to a minimum.
Thus, Mr. Conan wheeled and dealed and hid his wealth and power behind countless false names and dummy companies.
He knew all along that true power came from secrets, and he vowed to use such secrets to give himself something he had wanted since his family fled Soviet-occupied Karnia in 1920. He would acquire security, and nothing as gaudy and fantastic as the possible birth of an age of heroes would stop him.