Dapper in a new suit before the Last Judgment in Reims Cathedral, hair magically dark and now presidential, snapping a selfie to prove that he meant to rule, Barack felt old, with no children to make that less absurd, no future but what he could squeeze from across the card table that his guards had unfolded in the aisles of a cathedral where they used to crown kings. There were a dozen guards still loyal to him, making in total that dozen who called themselves American. The general who’d loaned them the helicopters had conditioned his allegiance on the outcome of this meeting.
Barack’s subjects were all in the nave, on his side of the card table, pretending to be a small part of a scattered nation. On the other side was Putin, with a dozen guards of his own and, as the head of the superpower that hadn’t been blasted by blue bombs, what was left of the world under his thumb.
Barack took ten pictures and tucked his phone into his breast pocket. After the meeting, Kevin would post the best shot. He had an eye for those, and it was he who’d convinced the others to stay loyal while Barack wandered the beaches. Now it was time to head to the card table and claim the Earth.
“Forgive me,” he said, strolling in with a rehearsed and medicated calm. He lit a cigarette and sat down. “Honestly, I’m surprised that you’re not taking pictures here.”
The line of sparks that was crawling east over Europe had broken at the cathedral, as it had at seemingly random places all over the world. Barack and his guards had flown there in the loaned helicopters. The sparks had been driving them east with everyone else, but they had gained enough ground to form a plan, and the cathedral, circled by a fire that consumed everything else, held the most peace on the continent. It was there that Putin had agreed to meet.
“I choose not to dally,” he said.
“Tight ship,” said Barack, and blew a smoke ring.
“Tighter than yours was.”
Barack leaned his folding chair back and smiled. He sized up Putin’s guards, trying to decide if his plan would work, if Putin’s rule was as despotic as the briefing had described. His guards were steely, dressed as Barack’s in black suits and sunglasses. If he was mistaken, and they were more loyal than cowed, the meeting would turn shootout.
“I hear that your security was not what saved your country,” he said in Russian.
“I didn’t know you spoke our tongue,” said Putin. “I suppose you make do without a translator of your own. So fallen.”
“You were sweet enough to make time for me anyway,” said Barack in English. He spoke some Russian, but had lucked into a fluent guard. They had rehearsed conversational Russian speeches for this meeting, and now he recited the next one. “I hear that one of your citizens turned in his blue rocks by his own decision when he saw the devastation of our continent. Was his morality caused by your leadership?”
“Russia is as over as the United States. Hellfire spreads across the world and will cross your borders soon. Three serpents swim in the sky. I saw one myself.”
“We know of the serpents. You are free to describe your own.”
The laughter of Putin’s guards echoed through the cathedral. It seemed as rehearsed as any of Barack’s speeches. One laugh was louder than the others, and it could have belonged to the joke’s author.
“See, I’d be nervous to talk like that in your position,” said Barack in English. “The world’s changed, as have I. I’m not the diplomat you remember. If I were you, I’d be careful not to say bullshit that could be read as hostile.”
“I am confident in the effectiveness of my men.”
“You don’t have men,” said Barack in Russian, and set his chair down. This was the last of his speeches. He readied himself, but his heart was racing. “At least the emperor in the fairy tale had real subjects. Your empire exists because you say it does. I say it doesn’t. You have no men, but mistreated slaves who want freedom, who don’t believe you can stop this apocalypse, and who, to earn their freedom, their raise, and their chance of long-term survival, need only stand back and make sure the others stand back.”
The guards kept their poker faces. Putin smirked.
“You are mistaken if you think–”
“We’ll skip the holy oil,” said Barack and leapt, knocking the table aside. He tackled Putin onto the floor. Putin was too startled to resist as Barack straddled him and grasped his face. No one interfered.
Barack brought his thumbs to Putin’s eyes. Fingers curled around Barack’s wrists, but could only rest there. Barack’s thumbs dug in. Blood sprayed around them. Putin spasmed and Barack shook his skull. Then Putin’s body relaxed.
Barack focused on the breath in his nostrils until his heart calmed. He slid his thumbs out of Putin’s eye sockets and called for a towel. Kevin brought him the one that he’d held in his coat. Barack wiped the blood from his hands and stood. His new suit was spattered red.
“That’s out of the way,” he said to his doubled empire. “Let’s turn our attention to more urgent matters.”