"Your Majesty? It's ready," Gwen says.
"Doctor Doom," Valeria replies out of habit. If Gwen insists on using a title, she might as well use the right one.
Valeria sighs, settles back in her chair and pinches the bridge of her nose, metal cool on her scars. "Run the calculations again."
Gods, but how she misses Layla. Uncle Doom is still around, but who knows how long that'll last, and he's no mother figure. "The calculations are correct," he says, "I checked them. You checked them. So did Layla before she left."
"It cannot hurt to check them again. We, of all people, should know." The edges of her smile pull tight on her scars and she tastes blood.
They run the calculations again.
The numbers fall within acceptable parameters. The wave will travel back in time and reverse all magic. It's crude and unrefined, because there's no information to refine it. So little is known about the original spell, only when and what it did, not even how.
"Launch," Valeria says. It's crude and unrefined, but it'll do.
"I've done this before," Layla says and yes Valeria knows. "I know how this ends."
"What," Valeria says, "you're Layla Miller, you know stuff?" It's unfair and she knows it, but she is done watching Layla kill herself in slow motion. As if it'd work better than all the other times.
Something snaps behind Layla's eyes. "No. I know it because I've done this before. This not my first run at the Apocalypse. I know how this ends and I won't watch you turn yourself into anymore of a monster for the sake of people long dead."
Valeria clenches her fists, fingerbones scraping on the inside of their metal shell. Then she breathes, once, twice, deeply and opens her hands again. This time, the movement is fluid and unmipeded. "They won't be dead when it works."
"I'm sorry," Layla says and the kindness in her voice breaks Valeria. "That isn't how it works."
"You don't know that. You haven't known anything for the last twenty-five years." It's a low blow, but she doesn't care.
Layla takes off her gauntlet.
She sets it down on the wave generator while Valeria stares at her in shock. She's never seen Layla without it. Needle marks and bruises pepper the inside of her arm. Valeria's felt this same kind of shock exactly twice in her life.
Layla's quiet 'I quit' barely registers.
Valeria watches her go, deathly fingers wrapped around her heart. When the door closes behind her, Valeria is still staring. In that moment, she knows she will never see Layla again.
At least... at least Uncle Doom won't leave. She made sure of that.
"I am only the monster you made me," she says. She doesn't know who she's talking to.
They say she was kind once, half a world away and a lifetime ago. This is a lie. She was never kind. There was never anyone to teach her how. She never learned to be anything but what she is now.
They say she came to Doomstadt from New York, through empires turned to slaughterhouses and verdant fields turned to dust. This is true. She was the Doom that came to Latveria.
They say many things about her. The worse ones are true.
Which, of course, is the problem.
"You can't shut down the medicine plants!" Layla might have tried to teach her kindness, but Valeria wasn't listening. She was never listening when she should have been.
Vakeria rolls her shoulders, feeling the scars settle on her skin. "I can and I will. They're wasting valuable ressources. The current survival rate is, at best, at absolute best, 25%. And this one of the better years. When dropping the medicinal care by half, it drops to 15%. Without any health support, 10%. And this is survival rate, not restored health rate. We don't have the infrastructures to handle invalids."
"I'm sorry," she adds even though she is not. "We're putting the country on lockdown and activating what's left of von Doom's quarantine protocols until we can replicate whatever it is that makes your blood into a miracle cure."
"People are dying," Layla says, voice small and resigned.
"People always are," Valeria says.
Uncle Doom's presence at her side is comforting.
"People are dying," Layla says.
"I know," Valeria replies. "Gods, I know."
She's tired, scars digging deeper into her bones and eyelids held up through sheer force of will. She was always - 'determined', Sue called her when she was feeling kind - and 'hardheaded' when she wasn't. The years have not softened her. In these end of days times, everyone has become more of who they are: Layla more brittle, Gwen kinder, poor Cassie more desperate, Ilinca more helpful, Valeria more stubborn. Only Uncle Doom hasn't changed that much. This is hardly surprising.
Valeria's will used to be enough to walk the world. It'll be enough to stop this epidemic. It has to be, so it will be.
"Ilinca, fire up the medicine plants. Get Gwen to cover second shift. If Cassie comes back," she doesn't say it, but Valeria knows how likely that is, "she's on third. If not, I am."
"No," Layla says, "I'll do it. You're no use to this country dead, and it's a fac-simile of my blood they're trying to make."
"Only in our free time," Ilinca says under her breath.
Valeria pinches the edge of her nose to hide her smile.
"I'm leaving," Cassie says. "There's nothing for me here and I have to know what happened to Kate."
Casssie gave up long ago on finding out what happened to her father. Likely the same thing that happened to everyone else, his powers inverting and killing him in the process. If not that, then one of the hundred thousand ways people died, his mind fried in his skull, his blood boiling in his veins, his body burning to a crisp, the water in his cells freezing and tearing him apart, hit by lightning. Valeria was lucky to get out of New York alive. She doubts Kate was as well, but if anyone did, it would be Kate Bishop.
"New York was the first to go," Valeria says. She can't afford to lose more qualified workers. The medicine plants aren't going to work themselves.
Cassie hefts her bag higher on her shoulder. "I know, but I have to try anyway."
"If you find her, when you come back, we'll need you." Poor choice of words here, Val. To Loki, she adds, "what about you? Have you suddenly developped a crush on the world's best archer?"
Loki smiles, teeth white and sharp against his blue skin. "I will be king of Asgard, even if it means being king of nothing except ruins and bones."
Valeria knows the feeling.
The pain digs into Valeria's bones still, even though it's been years. It seems to grow dimmer. Maybe it does or maybe she's getting used to it, but which it is she doesn't know.
"What is it this time?" She pulls on her gauntlets, metal and magic moving immobile bone.
"Cholera," Layla says and hands her the greaves.
Valeria armours her legs as well and stands up from her bed. Her heels hit the ground with a knell. "Lead the way."
The lab is a mess, Ilinca trying her best to handle the infirmary it's turned into, Cassie hooking up IVs left and right, Gwen and Loki running around to fetch things and move patients out of the way.
Valeria's arrival stops everyone in their tracks and every pair of eye in the room goes to the scarred side of her face.
"We need a field hospital," Valeria says. "Use the west wing."
"Those are von Doom's personal quarters," Ilinca says.
"Were," Valeria says.
Behind Ilinca, Uncle Doom moves his head minutely. Whether it is a nod or shake does not matter. She is the only one who can hear him.
She is the only one who reached into Hell for his soul and paid the price.
This moment has been years in the making and even longer in the planning.
Save the Doctor, save the world.
If only it were that simple. There's no saving the world and there's no saving the Doctor. There're both lost in endless fires of hell, but at least Valeria can get her Uncle back.
"Ready," she tells Layla and Layla stops her heart.
The castle looks different, like this. Ghosts of former ruins and glories overlap each other in a blinding tapestry of pasts long gone and futures never to come. The skies she can see through the roof are different as well, but she is not here to admire the scenery.
Uncle Doom is her godfather. She can use that bond. She has to, the entire plan depends on it.
The thread of silvery green interwoven with her own silver cord and fading out of the mortal plane, that must be it. It can be nothing else.
She follows the thread into the labyrinth, to find the monster and the sorcerer, locked in mortal combat. Whichever one he is, Uncle Doom is losing.
She steps forward, hooks her arms under his shoulders and pulls.
"Ah," he says, "Valeria. Is your father joining us?"
"My father is dead," Valeria says.
Doom does not speak.
The thing that used to be Stephen Strange and now sleeps - or would sleep - in the pyramid screeches after them, claws and hellfire surging towards them.
She screams until her throat is raw, every nerve in agony, sanity slipping away, centimeter by painful centimeter. Somewhere far away, an ECG-EEG beeps rapidly and her silver cord tugs sharply on the back of her head.
She lets herself be carried away by it, Doom's weight heavily under her fingers.
The former Sorcerer Supreme has grabbed her legs and isn't letting her go. She can't feel it. She can't feel anything below her knees and sensation is fading from her arms and hands.
He - it - smiles and looks almost human. "I think not."
His voice is a chorus of fire, blood and glory in the secret lore of the ocean, and he grabs Uncle Doom.
She wakes up and cannot feel anything beneath her fingers.
For the longest time, she doesn't stop screaming.
The castle looms in tall and empty ruins over the valley and Valeria knows, from how derelict it looks, that her uncle is dead. Grief grips her heart, a new sudden pain among all the old, dull ones.
Layla walks on. "Come on," she says, "we have to make it in before nightfall."
Valeria lenghtens her pace to catch up to her. With her uncle dead, all the manners of monsters and mad creatures that have descended on them for the last weeks make a lot more sense. This lose to the epicenter, they may not make it through the night, no matter their skills. Or at least, Valeria might not. Layla will, of course. She's Layla, she couldn't not even if she wanted.
Though old, the castle automated defenses recognise her right to be there.
Inside, Uncle Doom's absence pains her more than she can say and settles deep in her chest, below her heart, nestling against the rest of her family. The halls are empty, even of cobwebs, yet all the furnishings are still in place. The castle's best defense has always been its master's aura, even in death.
Down the steps that lead to the labs, Valeria's footfalls sound like armoured boots. Endless rows of empty, man-sized containers greet her on the penultimate level. They glow and hum faintly in the quiet dark. She is not surprised that they still work after all these years, but she is surprised that they are working when they are not in use.
At the back, she finally sees why. There are clones, three of them, hovering eternally in immortal slumber. There is Cassie Lang, dead these past twenty years at her uncle's hand. He had always resented the loss of potential, Valeria knows. There is Loki, her uncle's dearest friend, if either of them could be convinced that they had such a thing, his blue skin streaked with dark ink and the shadow of greatness. The last, she does not know and the notes simply read 'Ask her about Spider-Man'.
How like Uncle Doom to resort to cloning and memory copying someone who might not have the answers he was looking for instead of simply asking. Her uncle had never liked Norman Osbourn.
Valeria leaves the clones behind to be awakened another day and continues down and down and down.
Deep below the earth, she finds what she was looking for. Old blood marks the wall, telling a story she does not need Layla to translate for her. Doom did not go gentle into the night and where he went, he went by choice.
Here she can build.
They walk. Russia is colder than it used to be, but if it weren't for the occasional portals to Hell, you wouldn't be able to tell anything more had happened. People here have always been few and far between.
The Bering Strait is only 82 kilometers across, but it is still far too large to cross without a boat.
"We don't need a boat," Valeria says. "It'll freeze over in winter, we can cross then."
She doesn't get to say anything else, like winter starting next week - because that was happened when an Omega-level mutant with control of ice got inverted -, because Layla tackles her to the ground. Over her shoulder, Valeria can see a bear. The Kodiak bear, her mind helpfully informs her, is the largest bear in the world and very territorial.
Blood splatters her face and she stiffles a scream, Layla's heartbeat silent against her own pulse. Valeria stays still, tears welling in her eyes. She can't lose anyone else. She just can't.
Then, impossibly, Layla's skin begins glowing gold and her heart starts beating again, skin knitting itself back together.
The bear takes fear and leaves.
"Oh," Valeria says. So that's how Layla survived New York. It wasn't that she didn't die, it was that she came back, after.
Love her father though she does, Valeria knows he cannot help. This is magic, through and through. It is only magic that could do such a thing, target phenomena with such diverse cause. What is covered easily by the single word of "power" is not covered so easily by science. The only person in her life before who ever knew anything about magic is her Uncle.
"We're going to Latveria," she tells Layla.
Layla tries to argue - it's too far, how will they cross the ocean? -, but Valeria is resolute. If she is to solve this, she will need Doom's help.
It will take them as long as it will take them and might get lost along the way because compasses are useless since Magneto and Polaris died, but they will get there.
They start walking.
In the ruins of New York lie the former offices of X-Factor Investigations. Valeria isn't quite sure why she's here. Probably because it's the last place she hasn't been to.
She prays to any god that'll listen that it won't be anything like the Jean Grey School or Avengers Mansion. That's stupid. There were never as many people in X-Factor as in the others.
If anything, it'll be like the Baxter Building, and now she is losing what little dinner she had managed to find.
Someone touches her shoulder and Valeria jumps.
"Hey," the voice says. "It's Valeria, right?"
The voice belongs to Layla Miller. Valeria hugs her as hard as she can. She knows she's not hallucinating. If she were, it would be her mother standing there, or her brother, not someone she's barely met. Tears run down her cheeks and she spares a thought that she's probably ruining Layla's leather jacket.
Layla doesn't seem to mind.
At the end of the world, Valeria runs.