Ace Morgan stood up and addressed the former members of the original Secret Six. “Are you trying to tell us that the thefts you pulled off were motivated by a desire to keep this Mockingbird from getting his hands on the inventions?” he asked.
“You got it in one guess Ace!” said Crimson Dawn. “We took the gizmo to keep it from falling into his dirty hands. Now we need you to step back and let us finish him off for good!”
“The Challengers don’t sit around when there is trouble!” said Red Ryan. “You either deal us in to the game, or we all just stay here!”
“OK, OK,” said Mike Tempest. “We could use some help. In fact, getting help from regular Joes like you is a nice touch of irony. See, Mockingbird’s whole crusade is aimed at getting rid of super-heroes. You five are exactly the kind of folks he actually admires!”
“We believe your story thus far, but why not take us to this Mockingbird?” asked Prof Haley. “We can stop him from doing anything else.”
The Secret Six exchanged glances before Dr. August Durant nodded and said, “Agreed. But we must leave now. Your craft can carry us all. We know where he is based, and we must go there before he can act. Losing the Athena system will only make him more determined to act swiftly. You see, he is running out of time, as I am!”
“Get aboard,” said Ace. “We Challengers know a bit about living on borrowed time!”
As the Gallopin’ Gizmo soared into the air with Ace piloting and an interested King Savage in the co-pilot chair, the heroes continued to share their history.
“We served Mockingbird faithfully and did a lot of good until 1974,” explained Dr. Durant. “He just stopped summoning us. That was right after the Justice League of America was formed and their presence as a team became world news. I suspected at the time that he felt we could not offer the world as much as a team of titans.”
“The Challs were formed in ’73, just as the modern super-hero age was starting,” said Red. (*) “Still, despite our never having powers, that never stopped us from pitching in to protect the world. We were always busy, too, in our early years.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box,” Showcase #6 (January-February, 1957).]
“I was closer to Mockingbird, and I knew the truth,” said Crimson. “He hated super-heroes and saw them as a threat to the normal man. He went through a period of depression and felt as if he had no chance to preserve the status quo with so many costumed Johnnies running about! He and I had stopped our own affair when I demanded he give me his true name, and he refused.”
“You strung me along, too, or have you forgotten?” said Mike.
“You and I had fun,” she shouted. “It was kicks, a fling, and nothing more! I never meant to hurt you. I warned you at the start that little Crimson didn’t play for keeps!”
“He left us all alone after that,” said Dr. Durant. “He didn’t reveal our secrets, and I continued to get my pills, just as Carlo’s son Gino received his own treatments.”
“Then, in 1979, my son died in a senseless car wreck,” said Carlo di Rienzi. “His death broke any hold Mockingbird had over me, and I vowed to find new meaning in my empty life by learning his own secrets.”
“How did you do it?” asked Prof.
“I used my own skills to fake my death in a boating accident,” said Carlo. “I then used every talent and resource I had to put together the pieces of the puzzle that was Mockingbird. He made it a bit easier by making himself somewhat more public at that time, too. He backed his brother’s run for a political office, and he tried to recruit some new agents that could do more than we poor humans could ever do!”
“You mean he created his own super-heroes?” asked Prof.
Carlo shook his head and said, “Only figuratively. About a decade after he founded the Secret Six, he used his connections to create a public relations disaster for the Metal Men to his own advantage. (*) They are robotic beings created by Dr. Will Magnus.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Recipe to Kill a Robot,” Metal Men #33 (August-September, 1968).]
“Yeah,” said Rocky Davis. “We know ’em. They’re a good bunch.”
Mike Tempest nodded. “They are. I fought the invaders alongside ’em during the invasion last summer.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Universe: Invasion, Book 3, Chapter 4: Liberation and DC Universe: Invasion, Book 3, Chapter 5: Destruction.]
“Wait,” said Prof. “You mentioned Karnia in relation to the agent that poisoned you, Dr. Durant. It seems I recall Dr. Magnus was once kidnapped and brainwashed by a faction from Karnia.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Evil is in the Eye of the Beholder,” Metal Men #45 (April-May, 1976).]
Carlo nodded and said, “Indeed he was, and it was all done by the order of Mockingbird. He wanted to remove Magnus as an influence on the robots. He had made use of their creator’s illness to make them think they could no longer serve mankind in their robotic forms. He convinced them that they needed human secret identities. He had one of his other pawns create synthetic skin for them, and he gave them secret identities of their own. He relished playing such games, as we knew all too well. The Metal Men served him without knowing his true nature, but finally he lost his hold over them when they managed to rescue and restore their creator. Mockingbird had hoped Magnus would die in the rescue attempt, but the Metal Men freed him. At that time Mockingbird, who was using his real name of Mr. Alex Conan, withdrew from the public scene.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “To Walk Among Men,” Metal Men #37 (April-May, 1969), “The Dreadful Hunt,” Metal Men #40 (October-November, 1969), and “Requiem for a Robot,” Metal Men #41 (December, 1969-January, 1970).]
“Conan? I can’t say I’ve heard of him,” said Prof.
“He was unknown by name to any of us until Carlo learned that he was Mockingbird,” said Lili de Neuve.
“I spent years following every possible lead,” explained Carlo, “and it took the help of Dr. Durant to finally cement the pieces together into a coherent whole.”
“I was happy to help Carlo when he came to me,” said Dr. Durant. “He had found evidence that my condition was due to Conan’s own schemes. He was the mastermind who had the Karnian agent drug me to begin with, so I would become his pawn. He also had the means to cure me fully, but he withheld such knowledge until it was far too late. You see, his pills kept my initial problem in remission, but long use of them crippled me. I am a dying man, and it is my wish that with my final days I stop the genius who ruined my life!”
“Once Dr. Durant’s condition became known to me, I brought in all of our allies,” continued Carlo. “We had all been used by this puppet-master, after all.”
“Like I said, I married to find a bit of security,” said Crimson. “But when I heard how Conan had used us all, and what his current scheme was, I had to help!”
“Just what is his current scheme?” asked June Robbins, who had been quietly listening.
“Only days ago I learned that Mr. Conan is also ill,” said Carlo. “He is dying, and not all of his power can cure him. He vowed to achieve his life’s goal before meeting his maker. He wants to use several elements to make society sorry that it ever accepted or upheld the super-hero!”
“And part of his plans involved my invention,” said June. “What is his plan?”
“He wants to strike a blow against the idea of the super-hero,” said Carlo. “Two of our early missions involved safeguarding plans for a super-plan known as the XB-107 and stopping an eccentric madman named Zoltan Lupus from selling a weapon to various foreign powers.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Plunder the Pentagon,” Secret Six #2 (June-July, 1968).]
Lili nodded and said, “Little did we know that Mockingbird had plans for the plane and the doomsday weapon even then. He retained the schematics for both items.”
“He wanted the Athena system so he could turn this super-plane into a remote-controlled means of putting this other weapon into place!” said June.
“Exactly!” said Dr. Durant with admiration. “Your reputation for brilliance is certainly well-deserved, Dr. Robbins!”
“So he flubbed up, and he’ll have to have a pilot fly his plane for him, right?” said Rocky.
“Negative,” said King Savage. “Mr. Conan is, among other things, an accomplished pilot. I could imagine him flying it himself.”
“I’ve read about Lupus,” said Prof. “He specialized in atmospheric alteration. His theories centered around creation of a localized environment. He thought he could engulf a city in water by converting oxygen to water or choke entire populations by removing all oxygen from within a city.”
“He sounds like a real winner!” said Red Ryan. “I could see a creep like that sharing a cell with Multi-Man!”
“He was nuts, but Conan knows what he’s doing,” said King. “I think Carlo can explain it best.”
“You are too kind, my friend,” said Carlo. “In truth, it is rather simple. Conan wants to strike at places known for sheltering or celebrating super-heroes. It would teach the common folks the folly of upholding men like the Flash or Green Lantern.”
“He must be seriously disturbed,” said Prof. “Those super-heroes have done the world countless amounts of good. I suppose there is only one likely target for his first attack.”
“Yes–” said Dr. Durant, “–Smallville. As the tiny community that gave Superman a home when he was a child, it could be seen as the true starting point of the modern heroic age.”
“We’ve worked side by side with Superman and Batman, and you won’t find two better men,” said Rocky. “The costumes don’t mean a thing. Those guys are pure heart and courage!”
“Conan, or Mockingbird, doesn’t see it that way,” said Carlo. “He came from a childhood of want and fear, and it motivated him to desire security and control above all other things. Men who can bend steel in their bare hands or run at super-speed threaten his idea of a perfectly controlled society where the merit of the common man is rewarded.”
“We’re coming up on the Lindmount building,” said Red. “Does he live there?”
Crimson laughed and said, “Handsome, he owns it under one of many, many dummy corporations!”
“Hold on!” yelled Ace. “I’m landing on the rooftop.”
As the Gallopin’ Gizmo descended, a dozen armed men raced out to face the intruders.
“Looks like he’s none too happy to see us,” said Red.
Rocky grinned and said, “Yeah, and we’re such friendly, down-to-earth types, too!”
“As much I as hate depriving Red and Rocky of the chance to pound some of these guards,” said Prof, “I’ll save them some time and wear and tear on their knuckles, like so!”
He pressed a series of controls, and pellets dropped out of the Gizmo to break apart and engulf the startled guards with gas. “Merely a mild sedative,” he said.
“And you could have got the same effect by just gabbing away at them,” joked Red.
They filed out of the ship, leaving Dr. Durant behind.
“The security on the Gizmo should keep you safe,” said Ace.
Dr. Durant nodded and said, “I’ll be fine.”
“OK, Mockingbird, this is where you get yours!” vowed Mike Tempest.
The Challengers of the Unknown moved with their customary speed and agility, but for the most part the older Secret Six members kept pace with the younger adventurers.
Tiger, Carlo, and Lili have to be in their fifties, thought Rocky. I’d say King and Durant are even older. Still, they have real fighting spirit!
“I have Mockingbird’s security codes,” said Carlo. “I think the fact that he hasn’t changed the codes means we’ve got him this time!”
They burst into an upper story command center, and June and Red exchanged eager glances.
“I think we can do a bit of damage to his security system from here,” said Red.
June nodded, and they began to work over a series of consoles.
“Between June’s computer knowledge and Red’s electronics background, they’ll shut things down nicely!” said Ace.
“So where do we find this Mockingbird bozo?” asked Rocky.
“His private quarters are one story below us,” said Carlo.
They hurried down a hall even as alarm sirens suddenly echoed and June gave a thumbs-up sign.
“Hopefully setting off the fire alarms but suppressing the sprinkler system will drive out all but the most crooked inhabitants,” said Prof.
“We’re not home free yet!” said King. He charged into a group of guards and began to batter away at them.
“Save some for me, Savage!” said Mike. The ex-boxer lowered his head and moved in to slam his explosive fists into the hapless guards with a reckless abandon.
A gunshot sailed by his head into a guard who had been aiming a gun at his back. He looked up in surprise and saw Crimson Dawn wink at him as she lowered her own gun.
“Watch your back, you overrated pug!” she said.
He grinned sheepishly and connected with a stunning punch that flattened a guard.
Lili was holding back as Prof, Rocky, and Ace dived into the fight. The Challengers had become a well-oiled fighting unit over the years, and their bizarre cases through time, space, and other dimensions had led them to become almost blasé when facing any peril.
Prof ducked beneath a swung rifle and kicked it out of a burly guard’s hand as he moved closer. Conan is certainly not the typical businessman, he thought. These guards are hardened mercenaries, not standard-issue security guards!
Rocky admired Mike Tempest’s flashing fists as he brought down several guards with his own pugilistic talent. He’s still got the moves for an old guy! he thought.
Moments later, the acrobatic Red Ryan swung into view and landed in the midst of four guards as they rounded the corner. “Miss me? I won’t miss you!” he quipped.
June Robbins followed him and spun around to deliver a kick that dropped another guard before he could aim his gun at the high-flying Red Ryan.
“Where’d Carlo go?” asked King.
“Hey, he did slip off!” said Rocky. “I didn’t notice!”
“You wouldn’t notice a herd of tapdancing elephants!” quipped Red.
“He was with us when we first descended to this floor,” said Ace.
“He’s a slippery one, our Carlo,” said Lili. “Perhaps he found a shortcut.”
At that moment, doors slid open and revealed a shadowy figure seated behind a large desk. A voice that was eerily familiar to the Secret Six echoed from the darkened chamber.
“Welcome, my old friends! This reunion is an unexpected pleasure! I fear it will also be something of a valediction, since all of you will soon be passing on to your final rests! In the unlikely eventuality that you survive, you’ll be sorry to learn that I’ve forwarded the details of your past indiscretions to the media!”
“Mockingbird!” shouted King. “You can’t hide from us any longer! We know your real identity now!”
The shadowy figure made no reply, but a weird laugh filled the room.
“Something ain’t right here!” said Crimson.
“You said he always used an electronically distorted voice when he communicated with you,” said Prof. “Still, I think this time we’re hearing a plain recording.”
The lights flared on to reveal a still Carlo di Rienzi bound to the chair behind the desk. A sound system behind the desk played the mocking recorded message.
Crimson shattered the system with a barrage of gun shots as Lili bent over Carlo.
“Thank goodness! He isn’t dead!” said Lili with a sigh of relief.
Carlo groaned and stood up as Lili supported him. “I confronted him face to face at last!” he said. “He gloated about how he’d used us! He’s a sick man! I can see death etched on his features. He still managed to knock me out, though.”
“This is just like his cheap stunts back when we were a team,” said Mike. “He relies on misdirection all the way.”
Ace nodded as he thought, For a moment there I suspected Carlo had lied to us and was himself the one and only Mockingbird.
A rumble shook the building, and Ace said, “That’s a plane! He’s getting away!”
They raced upstairs and emerged on the roof to see a strange plane soaring into the air.
“That’s the XB-107!” said Mike Tempest. “He’s on his way to destroy Smallville! We’re too late!”
“No,” said Ace. “The Gallopin’ Gizmo can overtake him.”
“We know,” said King. “We’re counting on that very fact!”
As if by some unspoken signal, the team of five attacked the Challengers from behind and boarded their ship.
“I can fly her thanks to watching you earlier,” said King.
Mike Tempest stood over a stunned Rocky and said, “You’re OK, kid. You could have taken me when I was at my best. That’s why I had to pull a sneak attack on you now.”
The former Secret Six boarded the ship, and it roared into the air as the Challengers recovered.
“That Crimson babe moves like a wildcat!” said Red. “She karate-chopped me before I knew what was happening!”
“I don’t like this a bit,” said Ace. “I think we just saw the last of those poor, tormented heroes.”
“If their secrets are exposed, some of them won’t have much to live for,” said Rocky.
The five Challengers looked skyward for a moment, then hurried back to follow as best they could.
Meanwhile, Alex Conan piloted the XB-107 on its grim mission of death. I may be dying, but I’m not going out of this world without making a statement! thought the man known as Mockingbird. I’ll die as I live — on my own terms!
He frowned as he saw the Gallopin’ Gizmo appear behind him. “Blast it! They’re on my trail, even now!” he said.
Aboard the Gallopin’ Gizmo, King Savage piloted the Challengers’ jet with the skill of the veteran flyer he was. “We can catch him,” he said. “Are we all still in agreement? We won’t be walking away from this crash!”
“I’m in,” said Crimson Dawn. “Carl will miss me, but truth be told, he spends more time meditating than he does romancing me!”
She turned to the ex-boxer and said, “Mike, I did care for you! I mean that. I just couldn’t see us together, what with our mutual burdens and all.”
Mike Tempest nodded and said, “OK, doll. For what it’s worth, I never got over you.”
Lili de Neuve held Carlo’s hand and said, “We’ll be with Gino soon.”
Carlo di Rienzi nodded and said, “To see what lies beyond! Is that not the greatest escape of all?”
“I’m ready to die,” said Dr. August Durant. “Living like this has not been easy.”
They caught up with the speeding plane, and King said, “This is it! Goodbye to Mockingbird!”
He positioned the plane beneath the higher XB-107 and suddenly surged upward. Both planes were carried up into the upper atmosphere as the smaller XB-107 shuddered and then exploded.