The entry line is long and painful. People sway in and out of the straight path so they can look ahead and see how far of a wait they have in front of them. Some people are anxious, too anxious. The odd person leaves, they’ve clearly given up. They say they’ll return another day but I can tell by the tone of their voice they’re using this as an excuse. They’re too scared, they won’t be back. A credit to them to even make it this far but, nevertheless, they’ve realized the truth. They don’t have it.
As I get closer to the front of the line, I see the entrance. There’s a man who takes each person’s ticket followed by a brief discussion. Even here, the odd person backs away but most go through and into the abyss. The ticket keeper has a large, black top hat. Eventually I reach him.
“Ticket please,” he says to me, his right arm out, his eyes stuck at the gate to make sure I don’t jump through without proper entry.
“Yes. Here you go,” I hand the ticket to him. The man’s eyes scan it carefully. Once finished, he looks me over, head to toe. I can tell he’s processing a lot of information. I see it in his eyes, he’s wondering what the hell I’m doing here.
“I assure you sir, regardless of my appearance, I am ready,” I state with confidence. I’m not lying, I’m good to go. I read the manual, watched countless others play along. I’ve seen the gamers who are good. I’ve seen the gamers who are painfully bad and everything in-between.
Still. No bite. The man in the top hat only stares at me.
I kneel down. I open my NES knapsack and pull out a controller.
“Dude, look. Watch,” I command as I take hold of the generic controller and hit a bunch of combo buttons. “Who else can do this shit? Imma play and Imma play well.”
He glances at my ticket and gives his eyes a slight roll. He’s going to let me in, he has to.
“Why the hard time, buddy?” I ask. “The guy in front of me was an obese fat fuck, nowhere near as fit and nimble as I. But because he had a biker jacket on, you’re good with it? C’mon…”
I shift my head around and quickly scan the pack of people behind me who also wait to enter. My photographic memory holds a couple of images in my mind as I lean towards the man in the top hat and lower my voice, just to make sure no one else can hear. I don’t want to start a fight or hurt somebody’s feelings.
“There’s a tall, lanky bozo. You can’t tell me you’re okay letting him in, right? I’m actually physically fit. There’s a Harry Potter lookalike seven people back. Guy looks younger than me by fifteen years. You have to be an adult to get in here, everyone knows this. You’re gonna let a pimple face teenager through?”
I let those words sink in.
“I think not!”
He slowly spins his head to the rest of the line. His eyes meet the same people I was speaking about. He’s almost robotic as he brings his attention back to me.
“I’ll give them a hard time, too,” he replies, finally breaking his silence. “But you…”
Again, he looks me over.
“You’ve got a Nintendo backpack and a PlayStation hat on,” he scolds. “You showed me… your controller.”
“You god damn right I did,” I respond proudly, soon realizing he meant this as slander. I keep rambling anyway. “The PlayStation hat, though, I mean yeah, man. I’m more of an XBox guy myself. Ahh to be honest, Nintendo is the best. Nintendo’s so fetch and what I grew up with. Vintage is the thing these days and I’m all about nostalgia. Plus with the Nintendo Switch, dare I say it’s the best console since- since-“
He’s spaced out. His eyes are locked on me like I should finish. There’s even a few shouts from people in the line who want us to hurry up.
“Can I go now?” I ask.
The man in the top hat shrugs. “There’s still time to turn back,” he reminds me.
“No dude, I’m good.”
“Others walked away at this point. There’s no shame in it,” he remarks.
Once again, I tell him I’m good.
I cut him off with a hand gesture. “I’m going in. This is High Octane. I’m aware of what it is and who resides. I know my skills and weaknesses. I can level up and grow, too. I’m a good gamer, I’m never complacent. I’ll figure it out, dude. I’ll outlast every guy here. Don’t you worry.”
The man in the top hat takes one final look at the ticket.
“It’s your dream, kid. But when you wake up from this dream, it ain’t gonna be fun. It’ll be a nightmare.”
A heavy sigh comes from my lungs. “So cliche. Christ, got anything deeper than that? My subconscious sucks. Look, I’m joining High Octane and I’ll out live every n00b in this line!” I defend myself while peering at the group behind me again. I see a bald dude with a carton of milk in his hands before I give an awkward smile and he raises the milk, taking a sip.
By now, I’m over the man in the top hat. I’m walking past, with or without his consent. Like I said, I have an official ticket.
“Hey kid,” he says while I walk through. “Hold on one second.”
I don’t know why I entertain this moron any further…
The man’s voice pipes up as he turns to his kiosk. “Does anyone know who’s first to face this pale, video gaming dummy?”
A second man in a top hat scurries over and whispers something in his ear. Both of them start laughing.
“Oh, okay then,” the initial man says to the second one. He punches my ticket and hands it back to me.
“Your first real test in HOW is against Jatt Starr,” he remarks, still trying to hold back laughter.
“Who’s that?” I inquire but the man in the top hat keeps snickering. “I mean I’ve heard of the name-”
“A legend, kid,” he interrupts sternly. “An absolute legend.”
He hands me my ticket before tipping his cap in a sarcastic notion.
“Go and wrestle a legend. I’ll see you back here in a couple days.”
Well fuck you too?
I snatch my ticket. I don’t say thank you as I pick up my knapsack and wander through the on ramp.
Whatever, buddy. Laugh it up. Think whatever you want. Typecast me, it’s cool. I’m ready for this game. I’m fine with Jatt Starr.
It’s Level 1, after all.
How hard can it be?
— — — — —
Where was I? Where the fuck were you, bro!? Why couldn’t you put aside your differences with Bobbinette and be willing to find an attempted murderer? Who cares about your history with her, have some human decency. A person tried to murder Bobbie.
Bury the hatchet; move the fuck on. Pull your head outta your ass and be the man you were supposed to be when we joined together.
In fact, all of this is your fault.
Had you not locked yourself in a bunker and stuffed your face full of Cheetos with a controller in your hands… if you didn’t want to make a return to wrestling when you saw my SNES tights glistening in the ring… and had you not beat me two years ago…
None of this shit would’ve happened!
I’d have never killed a man.
Maybe you and I would’ve been friends with no hidden agenda or meaning. But no. You couldn’t let some dumbass kid take the spotlight. You copied me. Get this, right. The motherfucking LEGENDARY Jatt Starr, the guy who trailblazer this company for years… a name on the Mount Rushmore of High Octane… copied me. Some dipshit kid. I had a hulking henchman, 330+ pounds of pure muscle in a luchador mask. I called him my Game Boy. He was my protector. Then you take some fuckstick schmuck… I believe by the name of Hugo if memory serves me correctly and you called him The Switch.
Totally took my pop’n’fresh gameplan and emulated ME. To the fullest.
Guess it worked. Like I said, you won. But then I dug down… I dug down hard. I didn’t RAGEQUIT like the rest of these fucking losers who come in here time and time again, get a lil’ butthurt that they lOsE mAtChy so they vanish and are never heard from again. Hello James Storm, Hughie Freeman, Franklin Dylan James. Just a couple of goombas I keep in the back of my head. Conor Fuse outlasted them all because I not only have an infinite lifebar I have the attitude to go along with it.
So I worked at my game. I went level by level. I moved into an old age home and I posted your picture on the top of my ceiling, right above my bed. No Cancer Jiles don’t get any ideas… it wasn’t anything love-infested. It was to motivate me. Knowing one day, down the road, I’d get another crack at Jatt Starr.
AND END HIS FUCKING DREAMS OF EVER BEING WORLD CHAMPION AGAIN.
Exactly what I did last summer.
2021: the Best Alliance broke up so Lee’s favourite soldier got his first title shot in 97 years versus Conor Fuse, the current World Champion.
And I destroyed you, Jatt.
Yeah, yeah, back and forth match. I’m not here to metaphorically bury you. Hopefully, just physically bury. Regardless, you fought hard, you went at me with everything. I had no Game Boy; you had no Hugo.
“The Vintage” Conor Fuse proved I outgrew you.
Then we teamed up. Put aside our differences. Dude, I trusted you. You fucking told me this would be bulletproof. You said Mario was back and he was all in. Some sure bet he was. He did fuck all and burnt out faster than the end of Scottywood’s last blunt.
Jace, he’s on you, too. He walked away from us because the Argonauts of Awesome was a complete fucking joke store. He had every right to go back to The Board and plaster himself all over Lee Best’s ass.
Wait a second.
You’re doing the exact same thing. Crawling into the bullshit asshole you know, not progressing but regressing and thinking you’re the better man for it.
I hate to use the low hanging fruit like your age but are you really this dense? Do you really have THIS short of a memory, Jatt? Only a few weeks ago you and I teamed and we defeated STRONK and John Sektor.
I’m a better friend and teammate than Sektor ever was to you and I’ve known you a fraction of the time.
Guess you can’t teach Jatt Starr a new trick. God damn same guy as 2020.
Did I not answer your phone calls last week? Yes, absolutely, I did not.
I WAS MAPPING OUT THE MURDER OF MY OPPONENT.
A plan I followed through with while you sat on your ass and didn’t take part in Alcatraz.
GREAT SCOTT’S family’s had run-ins with the mafia but nothing is gonna get him ready for a MDK gamer.
You’re up, too, “mentor”.
I guess this is the reason why you’ll never be a World Champion again. I trusted you and you failed. Bobbie’s been a way better friend than you ever were. Come Sunday, Jatt… let’s make it two-for-two.
.UOY LLIK GNIKCUF ANNOG MA I
I’m sorry for everything that’s happened between us. You’re right.
I totally deserve what’s coming to me.
I failed you. We finally put aside our differences and let’s face it, we really didn’t have any differences to begin with. You came back to wrestling because of The Vintage and I was honoured by this gesture. There is no two-time World Champion Conor Fuse if there isn’t a Jatt Starr who pushed this gamer to the level he’s at today. The High Octane trophies in my gaming cabinet are a credit to you. I don’t know if I would’ve reach these heights if it wasn’t for you being The Throwback to my Vintage.
I let you down.
When Mario decided he couldn’t make a realistic comeback to HOW and Jace left for The Board, it was merely you and I.
I put David Noble over you. I placed Bobbinette Carey over Jatt Starr, too.
You should be second place to no one.
I am a murderer. While others will say this is a good thing, that Conor Fuse is now officially placed amongst the TRUE upper level bosses in this company, doing things seldom few have, I feel absolutely terrible. A hero doesn’t kill. A hero teaches lessons and gives second chances to all.
I went too far.
Yes, rumours are Stronk might be alive. We don’t know. I saw his hand twitch; this could mean anything. The bottomline is no matter what, dead or alive… I intended to kill Stronk Godson.
This is not the Conor Fuse I’m supposed to be.
I let you walk back to Lee Best. I’m sorry you’ve done this. But it’s home to you, I get it. It’s what you know and what you’re good at. Jatt Starr deserves the best path in this game. If your campaign takes you towards the boss’ arms, I can’t say no. I left you high and dry. Like I said, I deserve what’s coming to me.
A few weeks ago we won. We should’ve tagged more often but I took for granted the relationship I had with my idol. One day, I hope to get our relationship back.
I have no interest in a real rubber match between us. You beat me two years ago at Rumble at the Rock and I defeated you last summer. I’d like to think we are even, despite being from different eras. I will always look up to you. You’re more than any nickname you’ve given yourself. You are the real paramount of this company. I wish you nothing but success. If I am to lose to you this Sunday, I will have deserved it. In all your years… with all your grudges… you’ve pulled out solid victories and never let your anger take over. You’ve kept your emotions in check.
You have not resorted to murder.
Jatt Starr is better than murder.
I hope you defeat me on Sunday. I hope you and GREAT SCOTT put The Vintage in his place… at the bottom of this league. A false hero, like the rest of them.
I’m sorry I abandoned you, Jatt. While I wish things could’ve been different between you, me and Bobbie, I should’ve known better. I support Bobbinette Carey, she’s a good person. She’s got a loyal side of her that she doesn’t show everyone. But you, Jatt, you’re more than a teammate or friend. You are the wrestler I strive to become, day after day, match after match.
And after the events of two weeks ago… boy, Conor Fuse has a long way to go.
— — — — —
“Are you sure about this?”
He asks me with such uncertainty but I could never be more certain. We walk down the staircase, heading into the darkness. I pace much faster than he does of course, because I’m over sixty years younger. Every few flights I slow down, waiting for him to catch up. But as soon as I reach the bottom of the boiler room, I make a b-line to the holding cell.
I spent two weeks here. I locked myself in a homemade prison, deep within the basement of the Dearness Living Community. This was where I channeled my rage against Stronk Godson, it’s where I leveled up. I’m going to be honest with you… I never thought I’d beat Alcatraz. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I was gonna take apart the powerlifter.
Let alone kill him.
“We don’t know if he’s dead,” Walter comments, trying to catch up as we weave our way through the dimly lit basement. “I was told he wasn’t dead.”
Walter’s been saying this continually. He keeps trying to remind me, as if the outcome will change things. It won’t. I’ve watched the match over and over again. I saw the rage in my eyes when I put a 50 pound weight over top of Stronk’s head and stomped on it. I intended to kill the man. Seeing him pass out with what was believed to be a heart attack… the joy in my eyes…
Yes, after a moment or two I snap out of it. “The real me” resurfaces.
But is this the real me?
I honestly don’t know.
We arrive at the cell. With hesitation, I open the door and slide inside.
“You have the key, Wally?” I shout back, knowing he’s a good number of feet behind me.
“What’s that, son?” He says, inching closer. I decide to wait, since he won’t be able to hear me until he’s up close. It doesn’t matter anyway. Key or not… I ain’t going anywhere.
“Just in and out for matches,” I mumble to myself. “The rest of the time, you’re here. At least until ICONIC.”
I need to look deep within myself. I need to know what type of gamer Conor Fuse really is. Am I the nice, happy-go-lucky kid? The guy who originally walked into HOW?
Maybe I’m the Locker Room Leader. The one who turned his back on David Noble. I’m the gamer with an inflated ego, letting his 97-title run go to his head.
I could be somewhere in the middle. A good guy who’s willing to do ANYTHING it takes to win a big time match. Like Conor Fuse vs. Sutler Reynolds-Kael.
Or maybe… just maybe…
I am none of these things.
And I’m a stone cold killer.
“Okay,” the Elder notes, arriving at the front of my cell. He reveals a keychain and locks the door shut. “You’re sure about this?”
I don’t say anything. One intense look and Walter nods.
“Same plan as before, son,” he states. “I’ll be down three times a day for your meals.”
He looks me over. I can see he’s extremely concerned but he won’t push me any further.
“Alright,” he smiles weakly and shuffles back to where he came from. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Conor.”
I walk to the back of the cell and lean against it, sliding all the way down to the floor before resting.
I hope I find what I’m looking for too, Walt.
“Psst, psst,” an all-too familiar voice surfaces to my right, as I slowly glance over, expecting to see New-Age Conor there.
But it’s not New-Age Conor. It’s me… not at 45-years-old or anything like that. It’s me from two weeks ago. Rumble at the Rock Conor Fuse.
With a ton of blood dripping from his hands.
Plus a wide-eyed, shit-eating grin. “Guess we’ve got some work to do…”