The flashbulb popped, causing Brandon Youngblood to blink his eyes rapidly, to try and ebb away at the pulsing red coronas left behind in the subtle welling. His thumb and index finger rubbed at his eyelids, the surprise from the photographer’s lacking countdown causing him to grit his teeth, the lingering burn to his vision turning orange, then yellow, all before finally dissipating away. In truth, the green screen, the cameras, all of it went against the very concept Deepak Chopra’s Stay Well Meeting Room had been created for, the aromatherapy and the circadian lighting system pushed aside because Melvin Beauregard had overbooked the conference centers of the MGM Grand, feng shui be damned. Promotional photos and commercial shoots, that was the goal. Everything was on a sharp deadline. The clock was ticking.
The whole process felt so absurd. Foreign. The polyester and spandex of his singlet clung to his powerful frame tightly, much more than he remembered others doing so in the past. His wrestling shoes, like any new pair, came with an unwelcome stiffness. However, this pair, these ASICS, they gripped too snug at his toe when he planted his foot, when he tried attempting an in offensive position in the scant quiet moments he had since donning his new gear. If only that was the only problem; he’d forgotten how to ride this bike. Sure, he’d wrestled just a few years back, unexpectedly ending his near decade long hiatus on a Caribbean tour paid for by some dim sap with an insatiable thirst for whatever talent he could find. He was even successful despite being grossly out of shape, running with Lindsay Troy and Dan Ryan, winning title belts and laying waste to what amounted to children while only levying a small measure of their skill, each of them far more interested to eat amazing street food and bathing in the sun. This was different. How long had it been since he’d conjured up this emotion? These feelings? PRIME. Number One by Definition. A marketing slogan conjured up close to twenty years before.
It was real to him.
The photographer hadn’t given a name. The commercial director had D. Anderson embroidered on his lime MGM polo, the D standing for Dean. He was a scrawny spray-tanned thing, a blonde-haired wire with a shaggy mane of frost tips and a braided chinstrap that fell to his sternum. He couldn’t help but play with his wide rimmed sunglasses. Every movement he made was ostentatiously animated, all flailing arms and big steps and grand film school philosophy to reach down deep within the self, to stump-pull the very heart and soul, all for the trueness of ‘his art’. “Okay okay okay…” he spoke in machine gun stammer, his wrists loose, his fingers spinning, “the money shot. You got the script. You got the words. But I’m just not feeling the…the…you! You know what I’m saying, Brand?”
“Yeah, I said Brand.” The response was matter of fact, without skipping a beat. “Saying the words is one thing. But, like, the passion, ya know…”
An exasperated sigh. Youngblood hated Dean, thought he looked like an absolute clown. But what he hated even more was that he wasn’t wrong. In the past, Brandon lived for the camera. Would rant and rave and threaten and intimidate. It wasn’t beyond his notice that he had well over a hundred pounds and a good seven inches on poor Dean, or that he could probably give him a good scare just by crossing his arms, a mild flex thrown in for good measure. Maybe he’d ask him which circle of Hell he identified with most, what, with the litany of Dore’s The Inferno illustrations to choose from, all of which were bordered with mishmashed skulls. He licked his lips, took a deep breath, turned to the camera. “A new era…”
It was Dean’s arms that were folded across his chest. He shook his head, the bounced on his heels and clapped his hands. “C’mon man…”
Poke and prod the bear. Was that what he wanted? Was that what they wanted? The script was simple enough; it was part of a bumper advertisement, to be played on the screens and the signage for the MGM Grand. Different PRIME stars would speak a line a piece, all of which would then be spliced together into a cohesive whole. Each one of them was expected to put their signature to their line, to add the pizzazz. A new era.
A new era.
Sixteen years ago. July. He’d watched the fog roll over the Detroit River from the Renaissance Center. But it was hours later now, and the oxygen was just as thick inside the Silverdome as it was outside in the oppressive humidity. The pitch of the crowd was distant from inside the ring, their roar crashing down upon them seconds after the initial eruption. Stinging sweat welled in his eyes as he stared down at Nova, the Rising Star’s elbows and knees digging into the canvas as he tried to push himself upward. But he couldn’t thanks to the energy he’d spent fighting to the ropes to break the katahajime, Youngblood’s vaunted and feared Gridlock
Nova may have been crawling, but he was still 5 Star Champion.
Over sixty minutes had passed, and Brandon felt everything slipping away. He knew the feeling welling inside his guts. Knew it all too well. He’d never wrestled for this long, had never pressured someone inside the squared circle like he was with The Rising Star. There was nothing left for Youngblood to give. Nothing more he could do. His reserves were redlining. And if Nova could get up, if he could manage to push himself to his feet, he knew there was nothing he could do to stop him.
‘Just give me a little more’ he begged of himself. They were two of the four pillars of the new PRIME. He and Nova and the K-Wolf, Karina Wolfenden, and the impeccable and indomitable Cadillac, the original GTT Tournament Champion, Angelo Deville. Of them all, it was Brandon who was the pretender, the weak link, the unproven. Not a single accolade of true merit lined his wall. Sure, he’d beaten Karina, and yes, he’d fought Deville with an insatiable abandon before submitting, again, just like he’d done in the Dual Halo. But Nova was different; he’d won the 5 Star Championship in only his second match in the company, downing the seeming rising future titan Joshua Taro Freedom. The three of them had made a transcendent impact within PRIME. The sand was running out of Youngblood’s hourglass. He’d never match this intensity, this onslaught, of that he was more than certain. And to have it so wasted, to result in a loss so crushing he couldn’t even fathom it…he couldn’t bare the weight of such a failure. To be an also-ran.
He drove his forearm into Nova’s back, and another, and as the champion reached for the ropes, Youngblood’s knee crashing into the small of his back. The lashing hatred wasn’t born of Nova, but rather the fester sinkhole that was his own crippling doubt. Again and again. Over and over. Fury and rage washed through him. Feral drool and a resolute roar came from deep within, and then he pushed himself up and took Nova with him, his fingers snaring tufts of his dirty blonde hair, lifting him up and forcing him over his knee with a pendulum backbreaker. It was as if the air had escaped the dome, leaving with it a tinnitus that lacked vibration. Youngblood lifted Nova back up and irish whipped him, catching him with a back body drop, every movement focusing towards the next Gridlock. He peeled him off the canvas, gave him another irish whip, and then…and then…
Crashing sudden blackness. Brandon’s guts churned, his brain sloshing about inside the base of his skull. Nova roared before using the momentum off the ricochet of the ropes to thrust his arm out with an axe bomber lariat so hard that it chipped a few of Youngblood’s molars. He was suspended in the comforting abyssopelagic, left with no dread, no worries. When instinct kicked in, panic seized his heart. The blow had dropped them both to the canvas. He tasted rust. Staggered, heavy lunged belching breathes and wheezes sounded from them, a guttural cry as they braced against each other like drunken children, their own heads pushing against one another for support. Using the other to climb the ladder. To answer the bell.
The Rising Star struck first, his open palm stinging Youngblood’s cheek. His return volley was rapid-fire, a blistering knife-edge chop leaving a stark and indelible imprint, lashing across the champion’s chest, and…and…and now. Now! Thousands of Hindu squats had prepared him for this gamble. He grabbed hold of Nova as he tried to recover, lifting him and spinning before spiking him into the canvas with a devastating spinebuster. He collapsed into the Champion’s guard for the pin. Not a single molecule of doubt.
Finally, truly, victory.
A knowing smirk. Satisfaction? Relief. “A new era…” There was a bravado in the way the words left his lips. He was beaming.
Director Dean drew his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, a contorted grimace, perplexed. It tasted as sharp as listerine. “That…that’s not you.”
‘But what do you know?’ came an internal scream. Indignation. Brandon had done what he’d asked! His nostrils flared. Sure, after the spinebuster, there was a kickout. But that was the moment he knew, knew that Nova had been beaten. Where it mattered. The depth of his pride was in the relief of such a monumental success, not the anti-climax from the Gridlock submission that came shortly after.
But Dean had a point, he grudgingly acknowledged. Was that satisfaction fueled in the past what Brandon wanted to show? To breathe life into the old only because of some actuary notion? Who was he? What was he? Just how deep should he go? He thought back to the coronas. To the even more vulnerable.
Heat. Brutal heat. A clean-shaven scalp scorched sensitive from the start of sunburn blisters. He chose Pakistan because of the danger, because Afghanistan and Libya were No-Go’s for Taciet Securities because of the insurance liability and NATO. And his choice had him in Orangi Town, the biggest slum in Karachi. The streets were broken cobblestone and sand, the buildings a mishmash of stilted two-story foundations, all of which seemed to have the same deep green paint that was perpetually chipping, their sloped corrugated iron roofs crowned by cables and twisted television antennas. The crowd in the market was much larger than usual, thicker than it had any right to be for a random Wednesday. The whirling of sound surrounding him gave him a headache, left him frustrated, their tongue utterly alien to him.
His clothes were an awful fit with his paunch. Blacks with cotton, pants with too many pockets that were never deep enough. The G3M-Tactical rested at his hip, swinging from the shoulder sling. The butt end of the stock was cushioned with masking tape. The safety was off. Why a gun at the Shakoor Beef Center? There wasn’t a sensible answer to that question. The wide vaunted windows of the butcher shop had been aired out so the stench of animal waste could escape. He couldn’t imagine people living like this, in the squalor, trash everywhere, broken concrete and rebar and glass, so many people walking in it barefoot. Chicken cages underneath rat cages comingling with lamb and goat pens. Snakeskin and sausages with intestinal casings drying on hooks. The butchers wore no gloves, were dressed as any normal person, their tables sopping wet with diluted blood thanks to the hose they used to spray it clean. Just the building over, he saw some of the finest ornate and colorful handcrafted sewing work he’d ever seen.
This was where he went to die.
Gone to some distant land, incomprehensible to him, layers of barriers and an insularity he was flagrantly spitting at. Drinking wasn’t doing things fast enough. And as much as he thought of…well…that…there was no way he was going to take that plunge. His menthol cigarette tasted like an after-dinner mint, eyes scanning down the road, at the single rolling pick-up truck ambling down it which was bouncing haphazardly on its shocks and struts. He couldn’t make out the details of the people inside, just that they were flying some kind of political party flag from the truck bed, and that the vehicle was being swarmed by kids because someone was throwing candy in loose bundles. And from the growing crowd, a teenager with a bookbag slung over his shoulder ran towards its flank.
The explosion was sudden. Brass washers and nails. Dirty.
The gas fumes smelled sickeningly sweet. Deep black smoke and flame bellowed from what was left of the truck’s frame, its top flared outward, a burst shrapnel boil, and so much more, so much terribly more, and the screaming, the awful screaming, everyone that had been in the market, a normal day, and he stood, the shock not even registering. His eyes twitched nervously. He’d lost his cigarette somewhere along the way. His heart pounded, adrenaline and bile clumping together like gelatin…forming fear. Genuine terror. What he’d seen had registered, but he couldn’t look back at, refused to catalogue the damage left behind, and the wails of parents! He’d stumbled into some back alley, cutting against the grain of people running to the epicenter. Political parties cutting heads off of other political parties. A terrible notion foamed in his mind, scintillating his perspective with brain zaps, leaving him pallid, thinking about his, his Cody, a world away, and he looked down at his arm, at the Texas Bluebonnet, the only color in a sea of blackness…and the rage…and the need to protect him…that he couldn’t protect him…and he started punching himself in the face, started bellowing, started crying…
Brandon cleared his throat. Reset his posture. His hands were shaking. “A new era…” A guttural growl, teeth bared with a snarl. His fists had clinched. Such deep cuts, such awful stones now unturned.
Dean couldn’t help but wince uncomfortably, stroking his chin, shrinking away as he wasn’t exactly sure what he was witnessing, what he was talking to. “I…ah…I don’t think that anger really fits. Not with the rest of what we’re doing…” His words came in a stammer, and even as he tried to ease the simmering tension, he couldn’t help but reach outward, brace himself against the tempest about to bare down.
Bitterness. That was what Brandon felt. Toward him. Toward why something so simple was becoming so method. Toward the world surrounding him. But that was the easy read, all because wrapping his arms around such a notion was of greater pleasure than tunneling back to the empty despair he’d comfortably settled into in his past life. Finding reasons to live, to care, to actually care…that was the hard part. Revisiting the bottom only served to sink him inside his own shallow bay. He licked his lips, gulped in fresh air. Two one two. Learned breathing techniques. He let the calm coolness wash through him, through his limbs, let it well up in his chest and then, his everything steadied. “Sorry…I’m just trying to…I mean…get into–”
“—You’re good man!” A nervous chuckle rattled from Dean. He was back to the exaggerated pantomimes. “It’s just, where you are in the commercial spot, you’re kinda like a centerpiece, so I have this vision in my head and I think we’re both trying to get there, ya know what I’m saying man? So it’s just like, ya know…trying to pull your youness out of you. Ya dig, ya know?”
Youngblood didn’t. He just nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
“So,” Dean started once again, double finger guns brandished, “I got a feeling about this next take, I really do, just reset yourself and take the mantle, be the centerpiece you were born to be man…”
Brandon opened his posture, loosened up. Found his balance on the balls of his feet. Standing in one spot for too long made his feet ache slightly. Or maybe it was the shoes. Centerpiece. Like an echo, he whispered it to himself. He coiled, lowered his head. A sudden knowing of what he needed to do, of who he really was. At the height of his Babylon.
PRIME was Champions. Legends. And then, there was Jason Snow. The Original Villain. The winner of the sixth GTT tournament. The Universal Champion. He’d trenched through PRIME, devouring his opposition, retiring his rivals. No one was his equal. But on this night in Wembley, Brandon Youngblood was doing the unfathomable; torturing the very standard all others measured themselves against.
He’d earned his way here by being the Jewel in the Crown. In taking down the murderer’s row of Nitz Donnelly, Diego Foster, Elise Ares. He ended the longest winning streak in the history of PRIME by knocking off Chainz in the semi-finals. And then, there was the indomitable Tyler Rayne. Every victory coming by virtue of his skill, held under an oath of silence.
Blood crusted on Snow’s forehead. His legs had just been clipped. Youngblood followed him to the level on the turnbuckle. He had only one good arm left. Becoming the Jewel in the Crown brought the two of them on a collision course, but despite this, in the face of everyone who wanted to see the two pound each other to paste, their shared successes and tournament victories and championship glory created a mutual admiration society. A Standard of Bastards. And for a brief time, they, alongside their muscled titan backup, Boda, they’d made a mockery of all that was before them. Sure, they had lost earlier in the evening, failing to add the Tag Titles to their list of accolades, but what was happening here, now, was of the highest importance. A single hook and all the strength Youngblood could muster. Jason demanded Brandon bring the very best of himself. Had made him promise.
It was too important not to.
Top rope half-nelson suplex. The fall was ugly, the Champion’s body folding in disgusting fashion as he landed on his head. The momentum nearly propelled the pair to the opposite end of the ring. There was a certainty in victory now. A stammering rising excitement in the moment, like air bubbles. Everything Brandon had ever wanted was right here, and Snow was crumpling, a broken visage, ruined and tattered. His journey was complete. After failing in his only other chance to become the Universal Championship, here he was, ready to put the emphatic exclamation point on his career.
He was going to take the very throne of God.
And then, Jason’s foot skimmed the ropes. The rollercoaster of rage from Brandon that followed was insanity. How? After all he’d done? After everything he’d hit the Champion with. And here he was, still breathing, still in the fight. But not for long. Another half nelson followed. The ropes weren’t needed to break the pinfall this time. Victory crumbling. Snow managed to get to his feet and take a swing, and amidst the clamor of the English fans, was caught in the Gridlock. Over a minute in survival mode built to the King of Champions somehow getting to his feet, somehow driving his opponent’s head into the turnbuckle, becoming only the second man to physically break the Gridlock.
Brandon couldn’t accept the measure of Jason Snow. Couldn’t accept knowing, truly knowing, that in this place, on this night, there was nothing he could do to will himself to victory. He lied to himself as he tried to spinebuster Snow to the canvas. Lied to himself when, on the spin, he was somehow cradled so unbelievably, so smoothly, so out of thin air, that there was nothing he could do until after the three count had already been made. Failure.
Brandon Youngblood was nothing but a failure. All because he couldn’t scale Everest. All because Jason Snow would close his gilded age still the Universal Champion.
But what of it? Victory and defeat were malleable, oftentimes propped upon the thinnest of margins. The standard was what mattered most. In defeat, he’d became everything he ever wanted to be. The fight, the war, it had christened him a true legend. A Hall of Famer. A legacy cemented. And that was what Vickie and Jonathan-Christopher Hall faced; the unenviable task of scaling the Tower of Babel and to be brave in the eye of the storm. That was what he was looking for. What Dean, stinky nitwit Dean, had been prodding him for.
He rose his head deliberately, his expression stern yet with the hint of a malicious smile. His tone, his conviction, carried with it a foreboding confidence. He became the words.
“Welcome… to the new era.”