Ivan Stanislav’s body sagged as he gazed out the window, taking in view of the Kremlin’s spires. He scrunched his nose and could feel Alexei’s eyes boring into his back. Between FLAMBERGE and Glue constantly needling him, he had little use for distractions. He felt as if it could all come crashing down at any moment, and there were few, not even Alexei, who seemed mindful enough to help carry the load. Annoyance bubbled forth as Ivan pondered.
“You are still going on about this, Alexei?” Ivan muttered.
“I’m telling you, Ivan Sergeiovich, I saw Kenny Freeman and Randall Schwartz walk into a black hole of cosmic energy and disappear from this plane of existence!”
Ruslan had been going on about this for days, and Ivan’s upcoming match alongside Freeman and Schwartz only increased his persistence. Stanislav’s hard gaze did nothing to dissuade Alexei’s confident stare back. He was a believer.
Ivan crossed the office and plucked up his telephone. “Arina? Get comrades Freeman and Schwartz here tomorrow before they leave.”
“Happy?” Ivan asked sardonically while replacing the receiver.
A smirk crept across Ruslan’s face as he leaned forward. He knew Ivan was skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? But he knew what he saw, and as his smirk twisted into a wider grin, he spoke in a hushed tone. “Yes, Starshy Praporshchik. Thank you.” He paused before adding with wild eyes, “I know you don’t believe me, Ivan.”
Stanislav nodded immediately.
“But Ivan? What if what I say is correct? Just imagine how much power The Red Army would wield!”
This hadn’t occurred to Ivan Stanislav. He’d simply assumed that Ruslan must be mistaken or crazy. But now, amidst an air of uncertainty, Ivan Stanislav was forced to consider the possibilities.
The Masters of the Moscowverse stepped out of the beat up Honda Civic while smoke billowed up from beneath the hood. Kenny shook his head with belief. Yes, belief. Because he certainly saw this coming.
“I told you to put coolant in before we left!” He exclaimed, turning to face a dumbfounded Randall.
The Entertainer replied indignantly, “These cars are built Russian tough! That’s why Honda Civics are so reliable!”
Kenny rolled his eyes in response. “Honda isn’t a Russian manufacturer, man, and that’s definitely not how a Civic works. Ivan always wants us to come to Moscow between shows and I just wanted to get the hell out of here. Maybe enjoy the sights for a bit before we head to Memphis for that six-man tag match.”
A wistful memory crossed Randall’s face which blotted out the Russian-made cars that whizzed dangerously next to him. “Ah, Memphis, I dare say that’s my home away from home, ya know? Did I tell you about the time I wrestled Gary Fowler in front of a sold-out crowd in the Memphis Dome, back in Nineteen Lickety-Two?”
Kenny’s brow furrowed in confusion as he tried to make sense of Randall’s story. ““Lickety? That some kinda code for something? Or are you trying to Grandpa Simpson me with some fabricated story about a load of bullshit?”
Randall had barely begun to respond when Kenny raised a hand to cut him off. Simultaneously, a car horn blared aggressively in their ears from a passing motorist, who also took the time out to scream Russian obscenities as they blew by. The smoke from their Civic was growing thick and black behind them. Nevertheless, Randall was blissfully unaware and Kenny was woefully distracted.
“Ain’t no way you’re about to tell me about some match you had thirty-plus years ago, man… not when you and I are roughly the same age. I’m pretty sure that landing you took on the stage a few nights ago somehow got to your brain, dude.”
This slightly necessary discussion came to a grinding halt, however, when Randall’s phone buzzed and lit up, catching both men off guard. Kenny gave him a glare while the Entertainer fumbled and bobbled the phone.
“Go on, answer it,” stated Freeman flatly. “But if it’s that lady you met after the show, you’re gonna have to let her down easily. We’re not in Nashville anymore, and there is neither the time nor the place for that sorta behavior in 2023, my guy.”
With a winning smile, Randall finally caught the flopping phone and shook his head with a chuckle, though as he stared at the screen the color drained from his face.
“It’s from Stanislav’s office.”
“Well then, answer it!” Kenny exclaimed, his expression took a drastic turn in the process. With conviction, Randall pressed the button to answer the call… only to press the big RED button instead, essentially putting the call to an end prematurely.
“Oh, for the love of…” Kenny muttered to himself. “That’s not what Ivan meant when he said to think red, Randall!”
Randall, meanwhile, was in a bit of panic, somehow forgetting how to use a mobile device as he stumbled his way through calling the number back… only to get a busy signal.
“It’s busy,” Randall stated with a look of disbelief, drawing another eye roll from Kenny as he made an offhand remark.
“Maybe someone’s using the dial-up connection on the other s–”
Randall raised a hand to interject, as he managed to finagle his way through getting hold of the person calling, nodding silently in agreement with whatever was being said on the other end of the call before it came to a stop. He looked at his friend with a furrowed brow and a frown.
“Well, bad news I’m afraid,” the Entertainer said glumly. “The big man wants us in his office first thing tomorrow.”
Kenny took in a deep breath, letting out a sigh of annoyance. “Well that’s just great, Randall! This is why I didn’t wanna be in Moscow, man. I don’t need some sorta oversight committee tryna oversee my oversights.”
While Randall struggled to make sense of that last statement, Kenny continued.
“Sorry, it’s been a rough go since getting dropped out of the Almasy Invitational. I’m sure ol’ Stanislav just wants to check in with us, make sure we’re all on the same page before ReVival 40.”
Randall nodded in agreement with a big thumbs up before he stepped toward the Civic… which, inexplicably, caught fire inside the engine. To make matters worse? It started to snow. Randall turned his attention back to Kenny, who shook his head in disappointment while the car, behind them, burst into flames.
“Looks like we’re definitely walking,” scoffed Freeman, pointing at the road heading back to Moscow. The two trudged back towards Moscow, leaving the fireball behind. “I told ya we should’ve bought American.”
Ivan grumped and peered out the window at the falling snow. Freeman and Schwartz should have been there an hour ago. He forbade Alexei from attending, since his ranting and paranoia was at a fever pitch.
Finally the door to Stanislav’s office opened and there stood Arina. She ushered in Kenny and Randall before exiting. Their coats were dirty and soiled with melting snow while they stared expectantly at the imposing leader of The Red Army. The trio were alone.
Ivan tugged on one of his red suspenders while letting out a deep breath which strained against his black shirt. “Did you two drive Honda Civic?” he queried.
But before they had a chance to answer, he went on, “There was automobile fire on the Moscow Ring Road near Kashirskoye Highway, and two men fitting your descriptions were seen nonchalantly walking from it. Do you have any idea how many kilometers it is from there to here?”
Kenny nodded. “Sure do.”
“It was all Kenny’s fault!” Randall stammered, pointing an accusing finger at his friend with a concerned expression.
Kenny gave him a stern look before responding. “Hey, I did the best I could with what I had!”
Stanislav snarled. “That is why you do not buy Japanese. You buy Russian!”
Randall furrowed his brow thoughtfully. “You’re right, Ivan. We should’ve bought a nice Russian car, something sturdy for the Moscow roads. Something like, y’know, a Trabant Werbung, something you can put in H and drive safely for kilometers upon kilometers.”It was Ivan’s turn to furrow his brow with confusion.
Kenny tuned out the Entertainer, taking out a pocket-size notebook from his trousers. He mumbled something softly in a melodic tone as he hastily jotted down words, revealing a line that read “Moscow roads, take me home” before covertly stashing the book away.
While Randall spoke, Stanislav moved ominously around the office, like a boulder circling two oblivious mice. He locked the door and closed the blinds, shrouding the room in shadow. A single hanging fluorescent light cast murky darkness along Ivan’s angular features as he tried, so hard, to focus on much more pressing matters.
“Do you two know who Lavrenti Beria was?” He asked, with narrowed eyes.
The pair looked at each other with a dazed and confused expression that would make Matthew McConaughey jealous, alright alright alright… as Kenny immediately took to his phone to look the name up on whatever the Russian equivalent of Google was (because branding is important).
Randall, meanwhile, answered almost immediately. “Pretty sure that’s a lady I met in Saint Petersburg the other night. Lovely woman, great, uh… personality. Problem was, her boyfriend showed up at the nightclub and it was a… very awkward night indeed.”
Stanislav boiled with barely repressed restraint. “Beria was head of Soviet secret police under Stalin,” he said, gesturing to a picture. “He had many vices—rape, torture and execution—but do you know his most heinous crime?”
“Lookin’ like Colonel Klink from the show Hogan’s Heroes?” Kenny was quick to interject with the remark, showing his phone screen to Ivan to reveal a search result confirming that Lavrenti Beria, indeed, looked vaguely like the fictional German officer. A freezing Russian glare from Ivan prompted Freeman to shut his mouth.
“He lied.” Ivan growled frigidly, “And so they tried him, shot him, and burned his body.” He furrowed his bushy brow as he adjusted his pants around his thick stomach, “I believe in that order. It does not matter.” Stanislav narrowed his right eye. “What does matter, my dear comrades, is your response to following question…”
The room grew deathly silent. “Do you possess reality-altering device capable of changing course of human events in blink of eye?”
Kenny and Randall stared at each other for a rather uncomfortably long time, unsure how to best answer the inquiry from their fearlessly fear-inducing leader… so, instead, Kenny opted to change the subject, because of course.
“Hold up, he did all that, but the lying was the problem? And this is the side I’m supposed to be aligned wi–”
Randall nudged him hard in the ribs. Mt. Saint Stanislav was about to blow. Realizing this was no time to get into the particulars of Soviet history, Kenny took a gulp of air before responding more appropriately to the question posed to him.
“To answer your question, no, we do not have such technology.”
“Not at the moment, anyway,” chimed Randall with a nod. “Also, it’s not actually a time machine if that’s what you’re thinking. I thought it was, and ended up in a world full of people who loved Darin Zion. It was terrible.”
Kenny felt himself melting under the incredibly intense stare of Ivan Stanislav. The aging Russian lifted his phone without looking. “Arina. Schedule a psychiatric evaluation for comrades Freeman and Schwartz.”
He replaced the receiver once more and walked towards the two men and engulfed their shoulders in his calloused paws.
“I tell you both what,” he finally rumbled with an unsettling grin. “We get to bottom of this in time. Either you are crackpots or something else entirely.” He took one deep breath and huffed out a short laugh. “Until then? Let us learn about powerbombs.”
Those in PRIME enjoyed poking fun at how backward Ivan Stanislav and, at times, Russia could be, but Медвежье логово (The Bear’s Lair) did not apply. An immaculate facility, it included a pristine wrestling ring that boasted crisp red and yellow ropes, with a black canvas that was emblazoned with the golden hammer and sickle. Along the walls hung reminders of Ivan’s past successes: old war photos, replica PCW and OSW titles, and flags from former Soviet Republics. Framed images of not just Vladimir Putin, but also previous Soviet leaders, decorated the walls.
At the center of the ring stood Ivan, hands placed firmly on his solid hips, while Randall and Kenny couldn’t help but marvel at what clearly was Ivan’s home away from home. A thickly-built bald Russian wrestler in a crimson singlet stood off in the corner of the ring.
Though Stanislav was deeply troubled by Alexei’s fantastical claim and the Masters’ evasive reply to what could be an earth-shaking improbability, he was a man driven by reason and a singular objective: ReVival 40 and transforming Glue into paste.
“All right, Randall,” Stanislav growled, “how often do you two powerbomb people? Because I have not seen one such move from either of you.”
Randall’s face lit up as he began a similar diatribe to his early conversation with Kenny. His friend’s gaze grew frantic as he tried his best to stop Randall with his eyes, but it was too late. The Entertainer had already begun.
“Funny enough, I remember the day well. It was the Fifth of April, in Ninteen Lickety-Two, when I faced Gary Fowler in front of a sold-out Memphis Dome…”
It seemed that “Lickety” was the trigger word to cause Stanislav to wince in, what appeared to be, pain, and with gritted teeth he rubbed the bridge of his nose and clearly muttered something under his breath in his native tongue. That was all it took to encourage Randall to trail off.
With a growl, Stanislav pointed at the Russian in the corner. “Just… just train with Viktor over there. Get your practice in, Randall. And try not to talk.” The Bear then rounded on Kenny and pointed. “And you, go sit out there with me and watch.”
Randall gave the Bear a smile and a thumbs up while Kenny and Ivan took their leave of the ring. Viktor squared up with a still-smiling Entertainer.
Benches lined the outer area, perfect for spectators of all sizes. Ivan grumbled and settled next to Freeman, muttering under his breath. “If FLAMBERGE had taken my offer all those months ago, maybe I would not have to deal with this!” He waved dismissively at the ring, and particularly at Randall Schwartz.
Kenny winced as he looked at the Bear, but the action in the ring drew his attention away. Randall quickly began getting into the swing of things… and by that, we mean getting swung around by Viktor with ease. The Entertainer blocked a clothesline attempt with a kick to the abdomen. He then began to lift Viktor up for what looked to be a powerful powerbomb. Ivan and Kenny stared in shock at the effort, only for their excitement to give way to disappointment as the physical and psychological pressure caused Randall to collapse in a heap.
Stanislav surged to his feet and slapped his meaty hand on his thigh while pointing at the lump that was Randall Schwartz. “Nyet! Nyet, nyet, nyet!” He bellowed, “You have to use your legs, and have strong grip, and have fire and determination burning inside your belly!”
Ivan’s words were disgust made manifest as he blared at Kenny, “Do you two even understand what is happening in PRIME? Besides Alias title, which is held by that confoundingly handsome Tsonda, Glue has everything!” He stabbed his huge finger into his palm. “Backstabbers! Betrayers! Capitalists! All of them! Hanlon, Phillips, Fontaine, FLAMBERGE, and Farthington. A sticky poison which has tainted even the Troy’s! Ami asks Hanlon out on dates. Lindsay buddy-buddies up with Farthington! And they say we are villains?!”
Kenny hung his head low in shame… a feeling that was not shared by Randall, who somehow managed to get back to his feet, a worn-out smile on his face.
Stanislav’s face turned scarlet as passion welled in his eyes. “We are The Red Army, and it is our sacred duty to protect PRIME from that lot! And what have you two been doing?! Having slap fights and chair races and playing papers and rocks and scissor games! Is this joke to both of you?!”
It was the Entertainer whose voice rang out, forcefully, despite clutching his back. “Of course not! We engaged in the Gentlemen’s Games purely because we knew it was a specialty of the man in charge of their little operation.”
Kenny followed with confidence and unflappably stared the Bear in the eye.
“We wanted to prove we could beat the glue troop with a dose of their own medicine. You might see it as goofing around, but we’ve been playing fourth-dimensional chess with a pair who barely know how to play tic-tac-toe.”
Ivan’s chest heaved as he listened to Kenny, fixating Freeman with a fiery gaze. “We are wrestlers,” he said. “Can you two beat Fontaine and Phillips in ring?”
Kenny nodded with honest confidence. “Absolutely.”
Randall quickly jumped in on the fun with a remark of his own. “We already proved once that we’re a better tag team than those two, and at ReVival 40 we’re gonna teach them that lesson again!”
The Universal Champion nodded at Viktor, collapsed onto the bench, and flared his nostrils. Ivan’s shoulders sagged beneath an unseen weight while speaking. “We have to beat them, Kenny. We need initiative and momentum for Colossus. Regardless of what they say about us, we are PRIME’s vanguard. Do you understand?”
Kenny furrowed his brows and stared up at his leader. The unseen weight bent and buckled Ivan’s broad, muscular shoulders. He looked so exhausted. Kenny didn’t know if he believed in communism, but he knew Ivan believed in the cause.
After a careful moment of consideration, he placed his small hand on Stanislav’s thick forearm. “We’re not gonna let you down, Ivan.” He smirked. “Not when it’s our reputations on the line going into Colossus against the Glue Man Group. We have to see these Gentlemen’s Games through, and we have to see ourselves to a victory. It’s the only way we can finally finish the st–”
His words were cut off as a “Help!” rang out from the ring. Randall struggled to free himself from the ring ropes, his arms pretzeled between them. Kenny glanced at Ivan with a look of alarm and rose, but faced The Russian Bear.
“Ivan? Starshy Praporshchik?” Kenny met Ivan’s eyes with honesty and conviction. “We’ve got your back going into ReVival 40 and Colossus. Last thing we need is a man with a penchant for necking to hold that Universal Championship.” He nodded. “You’re not alone in this.”
Kenny rushed Randall while Ivan watched the first two members of The Red Army help one another. Kenny freed Randall’s arm but the Entertainer tripped and faceplanted in the middle of the ring. Somehow, Ivan was comforted. Somehow, he felt reassured.
He watched Kenny help his friend to his feet and Schwartz gave that damned thumbs up.
Were they teaching him?
When the training concluded, Stanislav was true to his word and sent the Masters for a thorough psychological evaluation. If their cryptic talk about traveling multiversally wasn’t enough to warrant it, using a word like “Lickety” certainly was enough of an excuse. No human of sound mind would use that word in a sentence.
Alexei waited impatiently in his office as Ivan finally arrived once more. With arms crossed over his chest and one eyebrow cocked, Ruslan spoke immediately. “Well?”
The Russian Bear scratched his grizzled chin. “I wanted FLAMBERGE because he seemed so perfect, yet when I finally looked into his eyes I saw nothing. No passion. No fervor. Nothing. Just emptiness.”
Ivan almost smiled. “But Freeman and Schwartz? They trudged through the snow together despite their car failing, they stuck with one another when I questioned them, they showed bravery in the face of my criticism, and they helped each other without hesitation. They truly are not just friends, but comrades to one another. I think I’ll take those boys over any member of Glue any day. I actually think we can win with them.”
“And what about the device?”
Ivan let out a deep sigh while shutting the heavy office door. Fantastical as the concept was, the reality was grim. “They have something, Alexei.” He paced back and forth. “First, we crush Glue at 40 and Colossus. Then Freeman and Schwartz give us what they are hiding.”
Alexei lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “Will they give it to us willingly?”
One day ago, Ivan would have had no compunction crushing Freeman and Schwartz. But now, he had seen the two men for who they truly were and the prospect, surprisingly, chilled his heart.
“I hope so. For their sakes.”