Within a spacious room inside a hollow mountain near Boulder, Colorado, a ruggedly handsome, black-haired man gesticulated wildly as he spoke in a decidedly animated manner.
“And I was standin’ this close to ol’ Blue Eyes himself!” concluded Rocky Davis with a loud guffaw.
As the former champion athlete finished his story, a rather sultry woman with red hair smiled politely, nodding in appreciation.
“My, but you have had some remarkable encounters,” she said as she glanced over to her left through long, heavily painted eyelashes. “I fear my travels in the material realm were rather limited before I joined the Challengers. That’s what happens to a girl when her father is a sadistic eccentric who keeps her locked up in his isolated Ozark castle!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Secret of Skull Mountain,” Challengers of the Unknown #69 (August-September, 1969).]
A restless red-haired man drummed his fingers on the coffee table for a moment before jumping to his feet and exclaiming, “Sheesh! Here she goes with that old Rapunzel routine again, and you’re just dumb enough to buy into it!”
As Red Ryan glanced from the exotic Corinna Stark to his friend and partner Rocky Davis, Davis stood up and clenched his fists.
“Look here, Circus Boy, there’s no need for you to jump on the little lady’s case!” he yelled. “I’m sick and tired o’ the way you always give her grief!”
Red sighed in an exaggerated manner and said, “Ease up, Galahad! You’ll wise up and see I’m right about the lovely Southern belle when it is good and late!”
Corinna looked up at the battling friends with a pained expression on her pale but lovely face and said, “Please, I am not trying to sow seeds of strife amongst you! I can never seem to please you, Red.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should take a hint or two and scram,” said Red. “The Challengers did just fine before you sashayed your way onto the team, and we’ll be just as fine when you flake off to whatever house you choose to haunt!”
He referred to the fact that he and his friends devoted their time to an unending series of thrilling exploits to benefit mankind. They were well-equipped to do so and enjoyed the security of the hidden base they called Challenger Mountain as well as numerous special gadgets and vehicles.
As Rocky stepped closer to the female Challenger, he added, “I’ll paste him one if you give me the say-so. He’s had it coming for a while, now.”
A slender man with brown hair stepped into the room and raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Hold it! We are all used to living on the edge. Indeed, as the Challengers, living on borrowed time is our stock in trade. However, that only means that inactivity does not suit our natures. Rather than enjoy a bit of downtime, we all get a bit edgy. I suppose menaces like Kra have saved us a fortune in therapy sessions!” Saying his piece, he sat down with a slightly unsteady movement. Clearly, Mark “Prof” Haley was still favoring an injured leg, but he tried to hide his discomfort as he made an effort to play peacemaker for his teammates.
“Prof’s right,” said Red. “I was shooting my mouth off without any right. I’m sorry, pal.”
Rocky sat down and said, “OK, enough with the hearts and flowers. Just watch what you say to Corinna. She’s one of us. She’s proven herself against creeps like Chu and his crazy cult.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “A Scream of Yesterdays,” Challengers of the Unknown #70 (October-November, 1969) and “When Evil Calls,” Challengers of the Unknown #71 (December, 1969-January, 1970).]
Corinna Stark smiled and said, “Red’s brusque manner doesn’t bother me. He and I will be good friends in time. I know we will. I’m sensitive to such matters.”
Red whispered to Prof, “She’s about as sensitive as the Volcano Man on a July day! I don’t trust her, even though she has done pretty well so far. I think she sees being on the team as some kind of stage from which she can pose and primp and soak in the spotlight. The dame is all glamor-puss, if you ask Ma Ryan’s little boy!”
Prof Haley cleared his throat and said, “Corinna, perhaps you would like to know more about why we chose the path we took. I know you are aware of how we all survived a plane crash that should have been fatal. We decided as men who had cheated death out of precious time, we could use that borrowed time for good.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box,” Showcase #6 (January-February, 1957).]
Corinna smiled and said, “I do want to learn more about you all. The better we get to know each other, the easier it will be for me to become an even better asset to the group!”
Rocky shot a quick dark glance at Red before he could make the obvious pun, and the acrobat-turned-electrical engineer remained silent.
“I was living the shallow life of the idle rich when my rather extended college career ended,” began Prof. “Having dabbled in numerous fields and acquired doctorates in several areas of study, I rather carelessly did little or nothing with my education.”
“I think learnin’ came so easy to you that you took the whole process for granted,” added Red. “I mean, your wealthy old Uncle Cyrus was footin’ the bill for your studies and the toys a rich punk picks up like a bad habit.”
Prof nodded in agreement and continued his story. “I was in the Mediterranean with some rather unruly hangers-on when we decided to buzz a small fishing boat with our larger craft. I know it was incredibly stupid and thoughtless of me. I can’t even claim that I was especially young, either, although I had completed my first degree at an unusually early age.”
“It’s hard for me to picture you as a joyriding punk,” laughed Rocky. “I always imagine you in a leather jacket with a slide rule sticking out of your back pocket!”
Prof shook his head before resuming his story. “Our foolish action endangered one of the greatest oceanographers of our era,” he said. “Sir Lawrence Revere was aboard that boat, and my subsequent effort to rescue him and aid him in recovering a sunken statue that was of historical value did little to assuage my conscience. However, it was because of that accomplishment and a few other studies I completed with certain experimental pieces of diving equipment that I was asked to appear on the TV series Incredible People for their special heroes edition.”
“Father frowned on frivolous pursuits like television,” said Corinna, “so I missed that special because of my enforced seclusion, but I have never doubted your skill, Prof.”
“You missed the point,” said Red. “If the story isn’t about you, you get nothing out of it!”
“What I was truly hoping to express was that my participation in the television show, which led to our meeting and the eventual birth of the Challengers of the Unknown, was due to some actions for which I was viewed as a hero,” continued Prof. “However, in truth, I had been selfish and thoughtless to begin with and had wasted the opportunities I had been given. From that moment on, after all that happened with Sir Lawrence, I vowed to become a better man. I decided to become more selfless.”
Rocky grinned and said, “Yeah, and yet you still hog all the test tubes! Just kiddin’.”
Corinna nodded and said, “What about you, Rocky? Have you some hidden motive to share as well?”
Rocky nodded and said, “You already know I was a wrestler and a boxer. I grew up in a tough neighborhood and learned to fight my way out of it. I made it and became champ. Later, it was a title match with a tough bird named Brawler Barton that led to my appearance on the TV show. You see, it was no ordinary throw-down. Barton was in with the mob. They were betting heavily on their boy, and to make sure he won, they slipped me dope in my water.”
Red grinned and said, “The poor sap still hasn’t recovered!”
Rocky nodded with good humor and replied, “A laugh a minute with Red Ryan, over here. So, there I was, so drugged up that I couldn’t see straight. But I was too stubborn to quit. I told my manager that I wasn’t about to let crooks steal my crown.”
“Needless to say, when Rocky makes up his mind about something, he does it,” said Prof.
“Yeah,” said Rocky. “I plowed into the Brawler with my eyes shut and brought him down in record time! I won and helped get the goods on the mob, too.”
Corinna crossed her legs and leaned forward as she said, “Surely that was something of a selfless act, was it not?”
“Naw. I was in it for the money,” said Rocky. “I mouthed off to the press boys and said some fool statement like, ‘I’m in the game for cash!’ I’m not proud of that. Just like Prof, I was wasting my gifts and looking out for myself without any concern for others. That’s not how my old Granny Snopes raised me, either.”
At that moment, the phone rang, and Rocky picked it up and answered gruffly. His expression changed as he heard a voice on the other end. A heavy Cajun accent pierced the room as an old woman spoke in a tone full of vigor.
“Boy, you bettah git moving,” she cried. “You and your friends are needed in Virginia. Don’t make no nevah mind how I know, I jest do! Go to the Stoney Battery Inn outside of Lynchburg, Virginia, and take care o’ yerself!”
“Yes, Granny!” said Rocky, then put down the phone. He turned to the others, including their leader Ace Morgan, who had just entered the room, and said, “That was Granny Snopes herself! I don’t know how she does it, but she’s had one of her premonitions. We’re needed at some inn in Virginia.”
Red smiled and said, “Finally, some action! I was getting restless.”