"Latveria," murmured ACS-9786-02 ["Captain America/Steve R."], frowning down at the Facility library's oversized globe. "Latveria… Latveria… there are too many countries in Europe nowadays, you know that?"
ACS-9786-04 ["Black Widow/Natasha R."] sighed, walked over to the globe, and pointed. "It's this one, Steve," she said. "See that little green wedge on the Baltic, between Poland and Lithuania?"
ACS-9786-02 frowned. "That's not East Prussia?"
"Not anymore," said ACS-9786-04. "Or not officially, anyway. You see, when the Allies met at Potsdam to decide the postwar fate of Germany, Stalin took the traditional territory of East Prussia, made the southern half part of Poland, and turned the northern half into a non-contiguous province of the Russian S.F.S.R. It was part of his general plan to bring the whole eastern half of Europe into the Soviet sphere of influence – and, with Churchill removed from office while the Postdam Conference was ongoing, the rest of the Allies were putty in his hands." She raised her hand as ACS-9786-02 opened his mouth. "Don't misunderstand me, Steve. I'm saying nothing against your hero Roosevelt, or Truman either; I'm sure they were great men in their own sphere – though I do wonder, sometimes, whether they were so much greater than the average G.I. on the Western Front. But even the best friend of your… oh, all right, of our country can't claim that Americans have the gift of shrewd and cunning statecraft. Brave, noble, resourceful – all that, yes. Foxy, no."
ACS-9786-08 ["Falcon/Sam W."] nodded. "Yeah, our foxiness average definitely went up when you emigrated, Nat," he said. "I'll never argue with that one."
ACS-9786-04 turned and looked silently at him for 2.083 seconds, and then turned back to ACS-9786-02. "Anyway, the takeover happened," she said. "The maps were redrawn, several million Germans were forcibly relocated and replaced with Russians, and Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad. For almost half a century, this little sliver of land was a key Soviet port area and one of the odder details on Soviet maps; then came John Paul II and Reagan and Wałęsa, and suddenly nothing was Soviet anymore."
"Uh-huh," said ACS-9786-02. "So it went and became German again?"
"Well, not automatically," said ACS-9786-04. "Kaliningrad was still a valuable port, after all; in fact, with Tallinn and Riga gone, it was probably more valuable to Moscow than it ever had been before. So the Kremlin made a valiant effort to retain it – and probably they would have succeeded, had it not been for a former West German diplomat named Victor Doom."
ACS-9786-02 nodded. "Right, Doom," he said. "Tell me about him."
ACS-9786-04 rolled her eyes. "You make it sound so simple, Steve," she said. "The most incorrigibly enigmatic world leader since the Forbidden City went out of business: right, tell you about him."
"I wouldn't have thought any world leader was much of an enigma to you, Nat," said ACS-9786-10 ["Wanda M./Scarlet Witch"].
ACS-9786-04 sighed. "I may be good, Wanda, but I'm not a magician," she said. "And that's what it seems to take to find out about Doom's formative years. All that's generally agreed is that he was born about 1954 in a gypsy colony in Lower Saxony; that he attended the University of Tübingen, where he dazzled his teachers with his natural aptitude for everything from poli-sci to physics; and that he went into the West German diplomatic service right out of college, rose like a rocket for about four years, and then suddenly fell out of favor with his superiors for reasons that even my kind of sources can't seem to clarify. There's almost something Lovecraftian about the whole thing: it's as though he found a copy of the Necronomicon in one of the libraries in Bonn, and got inspired to perform unspeakable investigations into the hidden and unclean powers of the universe."
"A copy of the what?" said ACS-9786-02.
"Nothing," said ACS-9786-04. "Never mind. The point is that Doom fell under some sort of cloud in 1979, which those in the know refuse to talk about, but which was enough to get him effectively removed from the diplomatic service. Not actually removed – they seem to have been somewhat afraid to actually fire him – but exiled to an essentially honorary embassy post thousands of miles away and effectively cut off from the rest of the world." She smirked. "Three guesses where that was."
ACS-9786-02 raised an eyebrow. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you meant Wakanda," he said. "But that's not possible, is it? Wakanda was deliberately isolated from outside influence until just a couple years ago; they couldn't have had any embassies in 1979."
"Not in the traditional sense, no," said ACS-9786-04. "But there were a handful of countries with which the Wakandans engaged in a unique kind of arm's-length diplomacy for decades before the Klaw affair. What they did was to build these immense pleasure barges, set them afloat near the center of Lake Turkana, and offer selected foreign representatives room, board, and modest luxury for so long as they cared to live on them. They would never actually set foot on Wakandan soil, but they would be in regular contact with the king and his ministers, and the attendants on the barges – all of whom were of at least one-eighth royal blood – would provide them with a window into the Wakandan society. And vice versa, of course," she added with a wink. "That was probably the real point of the arrangement; it's not widely known, but the new Wakandan intelligence service is made up almost entirely of these former barge attendants."
"A-ha," said ACS-9786-02. "And Germany – excuse me, West Germany – was one of these?"
"She was," said ACS-9786-04. "So was East Germany, for that matter. Wakanda was always more comfortable with the old German Empire than with any other European power; Germany was the great alternative to Britain during the colonial period, and her explorers had actually been the first to penetrate to the shores of Lake Turkana – hence its alternate name of Lake Rudolf – yet she had never tried to invade the…"
"Rudolf?" ACS-9786-08 interrupted. "That lake in the middle of Wakanda is called Rudolf?"
"Oh." ACS-9786-08 stroked his chin. "So that's what Pond was talking about."
ACS-9786-04's eyes widened, and she laughed aloud. "You met Pond?"
"Yeah, in London," said ACS-9786-08. "The Vision brought him to Dr. Johnson's pub, and the four of us chewed the fat for a while about the whole Accords thing."
"You don't say," said ACS-9786-04. "Did he tell you the one about the Bulgarian political prisoner who went free because the officer carrying his reprieve got shot?"
"No, but he did…" ACS-9786-08 started, and then stopped and blinked. "Wait… carrying the reprieve? If they shot the guy with the reprieve, shouldn't the prisoner have been…"
"Later, Sam," said ACS-9786-02. "Nat, you were saying about Doom?"
ACS-9786-04 shrugged. "So far as his youth goes, there isn't much left to say," she said. "He accepted the transfer, and spent about a year and a half doing nothing in particular; then, on 12 October 1980, a fire unexpectedly broke out among the barges, and three of them, including West Germany's, sank with all hands. Which," she added, "had never happened before or since, and lent more credence to the theory that Doom's idle hands were a particularly devilish workshop; a witness on one of the surviving barges subsequently swore that he'd seen the young West German ambassador on deck that night, summoning purple lightning out of a hole in the sky. But, since Doom himself was among the missing who were presumed dead, nobody made much of it."
"And when did he show up alive again?" said ACS-9786-02.
"27 December 1991," said ACS-9786-04. "Less than 24 hours after the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, Victor Doom walked out of the grave into the main square at Kaliningrad and proclaimed a new era for Central Europe. To conceal his scars from the fire, he wore a long green cloak and a metal mask and gloves; still, it was unquestionably Doom – as he later made a point of proving at an impromptu college reunion at Tübingen. And his message to the people of Kaliningrad was that the modern world was dying of hatred and fanaticism because it had neglected the wisdom that brought it into being – that the post-Holocaust fear of Germany had spawned a fear of the Enlightenment rationality that Germany had always championed – and that it was their duty, as the townsfolk of Kant and the heart of old Prussia, to restore the world to sanity by sweet persuasion and fair example. They were, he said, to be the electuary of Europe; therefore, he then and there declared Königsberg to be the capital of the new Electuary Republic – die Latwergerepublik, as he said."
"Latwerge," ACS-9786-02 repeated. "Hence, Latveria?"
ACS-9786-04 nodded. "It was a close thing," she said, "but Doom had his way; Latveria became a sovereign state, and her grateful people voted him a lifetime presidency, an official residence built on the site of the old royal palace, and, later on, an honorary 'Von' attached to his name for good measure. And nobody can say he hasn't returned the favor; in his hands, that little scrap of Baltic marshland has become one of the richest countries in the region, and also gained a ridiculous amount of moral influence in European affairs. 'The laic Vatican', she's been called; they say that half the E.U., and especially the major Germanic powers, never make a major policy decision without calling at Königsberger Doomschloss. It's Frederick the Great all over again, except that the people whose hero Doom is don't generally bother being Protestants."
It was ACS-9786-07 ["War Machine/James R."]'s first contribution to the discussion, and the other ACS's all turned to him with expressions indicative of surprise. "You, Rhodey?" said ACS-9786-10, wrinkling her nose. "You're a Doomist?"
"I don't know what it's called in Sokovia," said ACS-9786-07. "I always just called it being a concerned human being. When a man takes a country with Latveria's kind of past, and he turns it into the place where everyone goes to find out what soft power and universal tolerance really look like, my values say you support him, not listen to a bunch of reactionary wing-nuts saying that he's got ulterior motives and is probably a witch."
"Rhodey…" said ACS-9786-02.
"No, wait a minute, Cap," said ACS-9786-07. "I get it, all right? I can smell what you and Nat are stepping in. I said I'd go along with you if you could get me a name; now Foster's found someone who was secretly behind the Accords all along, and who definitely has the clout to do everything you guys were theorizing on Monday. So, fine, I'll keep my word and help you keep the Avengers independent – but I just want it clear that I don't buy your conclusions. Victor Von Doom has a Nobel Peace Prize, which is one more than any of us have; you accuse him of murdering 79 people, bribing a police force, and trying to blow up the UNOC, and I don't care if you are Captain America, you're out of line."
"He didn't try to blow up the UNOC," said ACS-9786-04.
"Yeah, I know you didn't actually say that, Nat, but…"
"I don't think it," said ACS-9786-04. "Why would Doom want the U.N. Assembly attacked just before the Accords vote? The whole point is that whoever rigged the Lagos business wanted the Accords to go through without a hitch; whatever the motives of Heimdall's bomber were, they obviously didn't have any connection to that."
"So you think there were two elaborate conspiracies focused on the UNOC that day?" said ACS-9786-08. "That's a pretty crazy coincidence, isn't it?"
The edges of ACS-9786-04's mouth twitched upward. "At this level of intrigue, Sam, craziness is the one thing we can rely on," she said. "Don't worry, I'll handle that side of it. I already have my flight booked this evening for Bucharest; I've wanted to have a long talk with the Winter Soldier for seven years now, and this mask business gives me the perfect…"
ALERT: INCOMING DATUM PACKET SOURCE TZ-0851-9, TYPE 8D20F3F9BS (IMP-PRI-APX-2016-06-09-22H55M00S001: AUTHORIZATION "WSDELANY"). ALL HIGH-LEVEL COGNITIVE SUBROUTINES TO BE REROUTED TO MARK XLVI.
"Boss, they've identified the bomber," said FRIDAY.
"Name?" said ACS-9786-01 ["Iron Man/Tony S./Boss"], sealing his face-plate.
"Colonel Helmut Zemo, Sokovian Intelligence. Born June 16, 1978, Oraș Nou; parents Heinrich and Hilda Zemo, Romanian immigrants of Transylvanian Saxon descent…"
"Yeah, yeah, spare me the David Copperfield bit, FRIDAY. Most recent permanent residence?"
"Not really certain. He's moved around a good deal in the past year – but there is a cabin in the Carpathian Alps that he'd kept for five years, as a retreat to plan operations for his Echo Scorpion kill squad."
"Good enough for a start." The Mark XLVI's thrusters heated up. "Patch in the coordinates, and let's rock and roll."