The Kremlin, Moscow

Headaches, vodka, and aspirin. Aspirin, vodka, and headaches.

The combination was enough to make anyone reel, President Volodin thought, massaging his temple with one hand as he popped three tablets into his mouth with the other. He reached for the glass on his desk and took a long drink, then silently began counting to thirty, swishing the vodka in his mouth to dissolve the aspirin.

Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, swallow. He put down the glass, lowered his head, and pressed his palms onto his eyes. And then waited.

After a little while the pain in his head eased. Not as much as in previous days, however. Not nearly. And he still felt some dizziness. Soon he would have to add another tablet to his home remedy. Four to a swallow, or perhaps he would experiment. Increase the amount of vodka, chase down the medicine with a good, clean shot. Still one had to wonder about certain things. Was it possible to overdose on aspirin and alcohol? And where would it lead? Actually, he already knew that. Perhaps, before it was all over, he would again turn on the television and see himself parading through the streets of Moscow. Appearing for the entire world like some heroic liberator.

Volodin sat there at his desk with his eyes closed, the curtains drawn over his windows to block out the sunlight pouring in over the east on Red Square. He wondered what the headaches, dizziness, and early morning drinking said about the general state of his health. Certainly not good. And why not be expansive and think about its meaning on the state of Russian politics? If, as he believed, the power of a president was largely symbolic in the modern world, how might the declining condition of a man who held that position be interpreted? A man who had scarcely had so much as a cold – and never had a drink during the day – in his entire life before returning to office was now a man who woke up in the morning with an insatiable lust for vodka. A man who had spent too much time in prison, he thought rubbing the scar left during his time spent in the Gulag.

Volodin straightened, opened his eyes. The bookcase opposite his desk doubled and trembled in his vision. He took a deep breath, blinking twice, but the room remained unfocused. Dear heaven, he felt ugly. Much of it, he knew, was due to the pressures of dealing with a country reeling from a devastating civil war and Ravens Rock. Especially the latter, they had been infecting the nation with their rhetoric for some time… and the infection had been spread more rapidly ever since they had overthrown him and acquired a platform from which to promote their extremist views. What would happen if the situation in the agricultural areas worsened? It was one thing of a group who was now a shadow of their former selves to rail about corruption from the west. These were a distraction to the populous. But hunger was another matter. Everyone was capable of understanding it. And it would not be assuaged by calming words. If the damage to the infrastructure was even close to being accurate…

Volodin jettisoned the thought before it could complete itself. He capped off the vodka, in any minute the lights on his phone would begin to flash. His aides would arrive with their file folders and summary briefings. He would be presented with a multitude of problems, many requiring his immediate attention.

He needed to pull himself together.

He stretched his legs, pushed back on his chair, and stood. The bookshelf swelled in his eyes again. He put his hand on the edge of his desk to steady himself and waited. This time the dizziness didn't subside. He waited some more, perspiring, queasy, and light-headed. The collar on his shirt now seemed too tight. It was as if all the air pressure had been let out of the room.

He reached out for his phone, thinking he would have to cancel his appointments. He needed rest.

But before Volodin could dial the number, a pain tore through his head in a blinding and excruciating bolt that made him stagger back…

His fingers were still fumbling for the receiver when the seizures came on. Volodin was already falling into a coma when he was discovered by his secretary minutes later. Two hours after that, doctors pronounced the leader of the Russian Federation dead.