Ceiling tiles loomed overhead and he struggled to listen, but the ringing in his ears blotted out the words. Angry lights glowed overhead and eclipsed the people looking down at him. He felt so tired, and yet also believed he had rested for days. Finally, he made out the fragments of voices.
Why were they here?
“…shot in the abd– …three rou—”
Then a friend who was unknown at the time…
Alexei. A younger Alexei.
…can you hear me?”
I cannot answer.
Another voice. Newer.
I know you.
What was she saying?
“Prapor-ik… -anislav… defea-… ..-nlon…”
Ivan Stanislav broke out of his past and watched the boy in the hospital bed. Alexei’s voice tore him away and he stared, dumbfounded, at his friend at the foot of said bed. Despite Ivan’s pressed uniform and manicured hair, he looked subconsciously disheveled.
Ivan was compelled to visit Stefan Kulikov. Perhaps because no Universal Title could shield him from the fallout of his exhibition match. The boy was covered in bandages from his nose to the crown of his head and his shattered arm was held together via plaster.
“You okay?” Alexei asked curiously.
Ivan nodded languidly as his eyes moved to the CR TV in the corner of the room. A familiar voice. Feminine. Olga Karishnikov. The beautiful brunette from Russia One was reporting on him. On his loss. On Russia’s loss.
“Despite our hero’s loss in the United States, we, the Russian people, are certain he will exact revenge and be victorious. Such things have consequences. Short sighted Americans will always get their due.”
Ruslan silenced the unwelcome news while a comely, raven-haired pregnant woman entered. Despite her attempt to maintain composure, the tears she had fought back reformed once she laid eyes on The Russian Bear.
“Praporshchik,” her taxed voice whispered, “how thoughtful of you to come.” Ivan knew it immediately: she was Stefan Kulikov’s wife.
Psychological shackles of freezing ice held Stanislav’s legs to the floor and rendered him immobile. Her innocence to the truth, hidden from all but those who had been present at the exhibition, allowed her to embrace the man who had splintered her husband. Hopeless tears stained Ivan’s uniform as she buried her face into his powerful chest. “I wish he could see you, Praporshchik Stanislav. To see a fellow wrestler of such magnitude paying him a visit after the car accident…”
“…would mean so much to him. It will mean so much to him.” She ignorantly stared up at the wolf in sheep’s clothing, “You are his hero.”
Fiery eyes of frustration, remorse, pain, and anger flared above her head in the direction of Ruslan, who melted under Ivan’s radioactive rage. He haphazardly struggled to salvage his skin. “Mrs. Kulikov, ahem, unfortunately we must go. Praporshchik has another engagement.”
Yes. Hurt her more. What did it matter? But she was a fighter, just like her husband and unborn child, and unwittingly assaulted Stanislav once more with wounded eyes. “Could we take a picture? For him?”
“I am afraid not. I must go.” Ivan, you weakling.
They left the woman and her unborn child with the husband and father they selfishly and fruitlessly maimed, and from beyond the safety of a wooden door Stanislav glared down at Ruslan. “Get me out of here.”
What sort of hero does such things?
“I forbade any visitors Ivan I–”
“Quiet.” Mount Stanislav was on the verge of eruption.
Stanislav did not often use his authority to silence Ruslan. The two had an understanding that neither was more powerful than the other. And still, Ivan had specifically asked Alexei to keep anyone, especially Stephan Kulikov’s wife, from visiting while he was present. How could such a colossal blunder have occurred?
Ruslan was suspicious as the two were chauffeured through Moscow. “I wanted to speak to you about Maxim, Praporshchik…”
Stanislav was not in the mood. “Later.”
Silence. Not until their large bus pulled up to a nondescript warehouse did Ruslan look at Ivan and speak once more. His words were laced with concern, “You do not have to come here, Ivan. I can take care of this myself.”
The Bear frowned as he stared out the window. “No. We all go. We earned it. Myself most of all.”
Warehouse Number B324 was a unique kind of graveyard. It did not hold casualties of the past. It housed the remains of a stillborn future. The corpses held within this warehouse-graveyard were banners, images, and self-indulgent accolades. The words, emblazoned in Stanislav’s native language, told of an inevitability that was rendered false:
Ivan Stanislav- PRIME Universal Champion!
Universal Champion of Russia and the World! Ivan Sergeiovich Stanislav!
The Russian Bear! The Ruler of PRIME!
Stanislav and his group of assistants, to include Alexei, Arina, Maxim, and Yanukovich, gazed at the ghosts of said future. The smell of fresh ink, rendered impotent by Culture Shock, still hung pungently in the air. Images of a triumphant, victorious, and even larger than life Ivan Stanislav were echoes of a dead dream.
One conquering poster in particular caught Ivan’s attention. A soviet-style Stanislav held the Universal Title over his shoulder before the impenetrable Kremlin Wall. A vibrant and hopeful blue sky shone overhead as he stared stoically into the distance.
Starshy Praporshchik Stanislav! Hero of the Russian Federation!
Riding the wave of victory in Russia was rewarding, but weathering the tsunami of defeat was a far different matter. Following his vanquishment, Stanislav had been subject to a brutal and somewhat unwarranted grilling by his superiors, the likes of which his detractor would have enjoyed immensely. Accusations were made and doubts were cast. Scapegoats were considered and threats were levied, not just against Stanislav but also at Ruslan.
Promotion to Starshy Praporshchik, a rank an enlisted man could typically not achieve, was gone. Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest accolade possible, was dashed. After all, was he truly heroic? Mrs. Kulikov thought so. Take that for what one will.
He took the vindictive, taunting poster and tore it in twain. As Ivan’s shoulders heaved quietly in the silent tomb, Ruslan and Yanu cast their glances downward and Maxim was unable to meet Stanislav’s gaze. Arina was on the verge of tears.
“These must all be destroyed. And we will destroy them ourselves,” Stanislav said quietly. The group shifted. Maxim looked frustrated but Ruslan and Yanu nodded their assent.
Only Arina spoke with wavering words, “But, Praporshchik, perhaps we should save some for posterity sake?”
Ivan spread his arms wide. “There is nothing here to be remembered, Arina. It did not happen.” His words held an intensity that did not convey anger, but did deliver a kind of finality in their purpose. “This represents our collective failure to achieve absolute victory. It is our responsibility to erase it from potential memory. All of us. Together.”
They set about their task quietly and worked together. Just as Ivan required.
ReVival 26 had come and gone and Ivan had returned to Kaliningrad. It was raining, which wasn’t all that surprising. The darkened clouds brought forth a premature evening in his office. With his hands on his hips he looked at the pictures of the past. The words of Lindsay Troy echoed cerebrally.
“I do not care how proud you are of your country, and I sure as hell do not care that you were the PCW World Champ twenty-whatever years ago. This is 2023.”
He snorted. “Гребаная сука…”
Twenty years ago, a far younger Ivan stood with various titles over his head and with Alexei at his side. The words that came to his mind, just like those upon the phantom banners, were variations of “hero.”
The specter of Stefan Kulikov, his wife, and unborn child hung about his shoulders like an albatross. Sending special operation dodgers and enemies of the State to the front line was one thing, but to maim an innocent fellow Russian was, even to the atheist Stanislav, an unforgivable sin. He should have stopped. He should have denied his overseers the satisfaction. But he didn’t. Not only did he fail to stand up for himself but it was all for nothing. He dared not think about the sacrificial feather and what that also meant.
The booking with Nova had come out of nowhere. The typically well-prepared Stanislav was taken aback by this strange turn of events. Their paths had never intersected for any protracted period of time, and yet, something about Nova rankled him. He watched the dipping sun succumb to the dark Kaliningrad clouds.
Then it hit him.
Forty-thousand American dollars was a lot of money, but it was a small price to pay when conducting a war. Against the Russians, the enemy belligerents were legion. Hayes Hanlon. Rezin. Lindsay Troy. PRIME. All the nay-sayer’s who dared to promote the evil that rotted inside PRIME’s festering core had to be destroyed. It was a patriotic duty. A moral duty. A heroic duty.
Ivan Stanislav left behind him a wake of destruction unlike any other across the Freeman Coliseum. No quarter would be given to those who dared stand against The Red Army. While Rezin had fled midway through the battle, Hayes Hanlon was not so lucky. Eventually the two were back precisely where they had started almost a year ago.
In the ring, where all would watch the final destruction of the upstart.
The coward, Hanlon, squealed as Stanislav wrenched his head and ground his enormous elbow into the boy’s temple. Beautiful fire erupted from The Bear’s overtaxed lungs. Lactic acid pumped and burned through his aching muscles. Elsewhere, Timo Bolamba screamed for Ivan to stop while FLAMBERGE and The Luchador watched warily.
Alexei guarded Ivan’s flank with baton in hand. Back to back, they watched one another while battling the demons who threatened their ideals. Yet, a wrestler as seasoned as Ivan Stanislav could immediately read a chaotic situation in the ring. The mat shifted. Someone had entered. And then it flexed.
Ruslan was down.
Hanlon’s eyes gave it away. Someone behind Ivan, where he could not see, brought hope, vigor, and safety to those young eyes. Whoever had come to Hanlon’s aid was special to him and an ally. This was someone who Hayes looked up to.
Stanislav had seen the same look in Kulikov’s eyes before his exhibition match. In hindsight it twisted his stomach.
It wasn’t just Hayes, however. It was the crowd. The ovation was deafening. They loved this unseen savior. They brought them energy. This was a vanquisher, a darling, and a representative of all PRIME. Their response was the antithesis of the insults, barbs, and epithets that were thrown at Ivan after his Universal Title match. This imperceptible hero was everything Ivan Stanislav should have been, and he wanted nothing more than to see who this bastard was. But try as he might, Hanlon sacrificed his body and clung tightly to Ivan and prevented his release. He selflessly protected this hero and kept the Bear’s flank exposed.
The cowardly blow from behind was stiff but, alone, would not have toppled Ivan. Yet that parasite, Hanlon, leaned back and bent Ivan forward. The unseen savior wrapped arms around Stanislav’s enormous head. A common leverage move that was effective because it didn’t require lifting him, a bulldog, sent Ivan’s face careening to the mat. The two Russians were now flat on their backs, and coincidentally, their heads were side by side. Stanislav blinked up at the lights and growled to his comrade, “Who was it?”
Ruslan answered immediately.
Ivan returned to his desk and thumbed through his file folders. He did not have anything on Nova, but another folder, full of messages he had ignored, did catch his attention. He picked up his phone.
The tulips were in full bloom at Taynitsky Garden within the Kremlin Wall. Swaths of red, yellow, and orange flowers formed a beautiful, sweet-smelling sanctum for The Russian Bear. It was easy to see why these revolutionary colored petals pleased Stanislav’s senses. Just as the imposing Kremlin Wall cast a shadow across the fair flowers, so did Ivan Stanislav with his female guest. Dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt, complete with black suspenders and boots, he looked more like an oversized laborer than a national celebrity. The young woman who sat next to him on the wrought iron bench was young and beautiful, with flowing dark hair and a long, angled face whose eyes revealed a hint of eastern Russian ancestry. She wore a thin black coat and a peach blouse that was buttoned up conservatively.
She spoke softly, “I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you…”
Stanislav interrupted her. “Off the record, of course.”
Olga Karishnikov, a lead anchor from State Media News Russia One, nodded. “Of course, Praporshchik. Off the record.” She gazed about the park, which was secluded despite the mild weather and time of day. She suspected the area had been cordoned off to give the impossible-to-miss Stanislav some peace in public.
She looked simplistically beautiful, despite her exotic features. Months ago, when she interviewed him on television, she wore less and exposed more. He frowned inwardly at the thought of lecherous men coaxing her to reveal herself despite her personal preferences. He hoped that was the extent of it.
Karishnikov had left several requests for an audience after PWA-01 and Stanislav had given her soundbytes and blurbs, but never an off the record conversation. She stared at him carefully and pursed her dark painted lips. Ivan cut her a sidelong glance.
“What is it?”
Her smile revealed slight amusement. “I am not accustomed to seeing you like this.”
A thoughtful pause. “Quiet.”
Her eyes twinkled and she risked a slight elbow to his large arm. “I believe I am most used to hearing ‘whore of a mother’s legs and you squealed like a piglet’ when I think of you.” She was referring to Stanislav’s fiery and impassioned speech while speaking of Christopher America so many months ago. But there was a different individual next to her now. It intrigued her in a fascinating way. “I know your loss weighs on you, Praporshchik, but you have lost matches before, yes? Big matches?”
As Ivan’s torso expanded his suspenders creaked. He nodded.
“So why is this different?”
The tulips, and the woman, were indeed very beautiful. “I squandered the opportunity to show true greatness to those people…”
She watched his granite jaw littered with gray and black hairs and turned toward him. “I did my research before this meeting, just in case. And while this is off the record, I must ask: who is Nova?”
Stanislav’s answer was succinct. “A would-be hero.”
“Would-be?” She asked curiously as she considered his thoughtful and complex, if short, responses.
“He is a Hall of Fame wrestler in PRIME. He has been around a long time.” He finally looked from the flowers to the young woman and admired her features. “They see him as a hero, which I happen to know a thing or two about.” He chanced a wink.
She took her time and engaged him with a simple nod.
“You see, heroes do not choose to be, Ms. Karishnikov. They only exist because those who find solace in their presence allow them to be. It is a heavy responsibility for people to view you a hero. The victories are sweeter, yes, but the failures hurt all the more.” He made sure she wasn’t bored. She wasn’t.
“The boy who stole victory from me, Hayes Hanlon, adores the man. He is a mentor and friend. He loves him. And the Americans love him. This Nova saved Hanlon from destruction, and in doing so he accepted becoming a hero, whether he wanted it or not.”
“So, it is hero versus hero, Praporshchik?”
Ivan shook his head. “Another aspect of being a hero, Ms. Karishnikov, is that a hero must try to overcome a villain, or a challenge.” The thought of Kulikov’s family forced him to look from her and back out at the flowers. “I do not feel very heroic, Ms. Karishnikov.”
“Call me Olga.”
He nodded, but did not respond. Instead, Ivan scanned the meadow and she followed his careful gaze. The flowers shuddered in the breeze as she continued. “If they cannot see your heroism, Praporshchik, then show them the villain and the challenge. You said it yourself. When the hero is defeated it hurts all the more, yes?”
She stared at the tulips and considered how they resembled a beautiful sunset, and as she eyed Stanislav, he looked similar. “This Nova wanted to play the hero and have Hanlon and those fans invest in him? Then make them pay. If you are a villain to them, Praporshchik, that is because they fear you and need someone to protect them. Someone to shield them. You have tried to show them your heroism, have you not? Have you not tried to show them another way? Have you not tried to make peace with them?”
Ivan watched her eyes. There was a heat behind them.
“Yes, Hanlon beat you now, twice, and it has been personal for you. I know it has been. But now? Make it personal for them, Praporshchik Stanislav.” She wrapped surprisingly steely fingers around a portion of his solid forearm. “Hurt them by hurting Nova. Fill them with regret. Those fools who conspire against you have stupidly served this would-be hero up to you for destruction. Make him regret ever wanting to be a hero.”
She was able to boil everything down to a very simple, if not raw, sentiment. Something that stripped everything away to the painful nerve which pulsed inside his soul. Indeed, if Hanlon had not robbed him of the Universal Title, Stanislav would have been up against Youngblood, not Nova. The opportunity to defeat, no, destroy Nova was directly the result of Hanlon’s own selfishness.
Ivan grinned. “You are a wicked woman, Olga.”
She sat up straight. “I am a proud Russian, as you are. We do not suffer fools.”
Ivan watched her quietly as she continued, “Give them an unfettered lesson in humility, for we, the Russian people, will always see you as a hero, Praporshchik Stanislav.”
Ivan thought of his past hesitation and the cause therein. “Even if it is horrific?”
She did not miss a beat. “Horrific for our enemies? Absolutely. Show the would-be hero the error of his ways, and in doing so, you will elevate yourself even higher in our eyes. Destroy his Hall of Fame legacy and make Hayes Hanlon, those fans, and all who would disparage your name weep tears of blood.”
Ivan nodded. She certainly was a journalist. She had a delightful way with words, but he was still a realist. “And give yourself something incredible to report, hm?”
Her laughter moved with the breeze and she squeezed his arm once more. “Of course! And then I will get an interview, on the record, with the man himself, yes?”
“We shall see, Olga.” He smiled at her as they both admired the flowers together.
Olga Karishnikov had given him a fair bit to think about, and for the moment, the Russian Bear enjoyed a quiet moment, on a bench, with just the woman and the flowers.
Nova’s chivalry, Hanlon’s selfishness, and Troy’s foolishness would come at a heavy cost. He would do everything possible to spread his misery across PRIME. They would feel the same heartbreak that the Kulikov’s weathered. The saddened, defeated eyes of his people as they processed his loss would not only be theirs. The broken promises of Warehouse B324 would not be exclusive to just the Russians. He would drop a nuclear bomb of regret and sadness across all of PRIME and ground zero would be their precious Hall of Famer, Nova. No broken furniture this time. Just a broken man.
Moving on from Rachel, painful as it was, enabled Ivan to more freely dish out brutality. Just ask the Kulikov’s. One day, he would have to reckon with the fallout of the family he had shattered, but at the present he was content to consider what Olga had offered. He would annihilate Nova and the Russian people would love him. All others be damned.
Praporshchik Stanislav broke the silence between them.
“Call me Ivan.”