Bad Reflections

Part One: First Cracks

The San Francisco sun is high in the noon sky, with no clouds to obscure its rays. Warren and I are taking a fortnight's holiday here to help deal with some nagging injuries we've been busily ignoring for a few weeks now – Warren thought some beach-warming might help ease out the kinks in our tired muscles, so naturally he insisted we pack our smallest swimsuits and plenty of suntan lotion in order that the two of us could spend as much time as we possibly could doing nothing whatsoever. I can hardly blame him for wanting to get away from it all – sometimes it gets a little too hectic at the mansion for even our mutual tastes, and it's been too long since the two of us had much time to ourselves, what with Tom growing up at an ever-increasing rate. At just past four, he's becoming far more capable of causing trouble wherever he can, whenever he can, so Warren and I were more than happy to let Scott and Jean take care of him while we're away. For one thing, they've been dying to look after him just because they love him so much, and for another, Jean expressly told me that she needs to rebuild some of the confidence that was destroyed after her miscarriage. She said herself that looking after someone else's child might hurt in the short term, but she also said that she needed to feel that life could go on, and perhaps start on the road to trying for a baby again with Scott. I couldn't begrudge her that, so I talked with Warren about it and he completely agreed. And of course, when he heard that he was going to be looked after by his favourite aunt and uncle for a while, Tom squealed with delight and almost ran around the room in excitement. Of course that was probably more likely down to the fact that Scott and Jean let him eat more ice cream than any of his other aunts and uncles than anything else, but it was heartening to see him so happy about it in any case. Rebecca was equally pleased about it – she and Sam had been pushing me to take a holiday for weeks beforehand, for reasons known only to herself. I suspect she has something planned for my birthday, but I can't be totally sure about that; where Rebecca is concerned, I find it much easier to let her surprise me.

And so we're here on the west coast, lying on the beach and sunning ourselves with no regard for anything around us. I'm reading a book, while Warren is busily doing his daily BlackBerry check. I tried desperately to get him to leave the wretched thing in the mansion, but nothing short of sustained mind-control could get him to abandon it. I did seriously consider that option for a while, but in the end I simply gave up. After all, why expend that kind of energy when the whole purpose of this trip is relaxation?

When he's finished checking up on his business, Warren slips the small device back into the bag we have brought with us, which contains such other necessities as fresh water, some snacks and an inflatable beach ball. Smiling, Warren draws the crumpled ball out of the bag and holds it up, saying "You want to play? It'll get you in the mood for a swim, I guarantee it."

I grin. "Why not? It'll be good to pull you down a few notches, husband of mine."

"Really?" Warren says, raising an eyebrow. "You really think you can beat me?"

"Without a doubt," I reply. "The sooner you blow that thing up, the sooner I can get to thrashing you."

"Now those are fighting words," Warren chuckles. "Let's make this a little more interesting – the first one to drop the ball fifteen times loses, and then buys the winner lunch?"

"I can live with that," I reply, before pointing at the still-deflated ball. "Better get to blowing that thing up, then. Time's a-wasting, husband of mine."

It takes Warren a minute or so to fully inflate the ball, and then we get up and get ready to play. Warren starts by spinning the ball through the air so that it veers off to the left, making me almost dive to catch it, before I twist on one foot and execute a double-handed throw almost directly towards the ground. Warren scrabbles for the ball, brushing his fingers against it before it ploughs right through his grasp and impacts against the sand, coming to a dead stop as all of its energy is swallowed up instantly by the shifting surface. "One-nil, butterfingers," I say, licking my finger and drawing a line in the air. "Your move."

Warren frowns. "Oh, it's on now," he says. "Better prepare yourself to be beaten, honey."

"You're welcome to try," I say, readying myself for his next throw and feeling faintly amused by all the mock-bravado the two of us are displaying. "Better get that wallet ready..."

An hour later, the two of us are sitting at a beach-side cafe, drinking cold beer and enjoying the rest. The pair of us have changed back into some decent clothes so that we can use the afternoon for some relaxed sightseeing, our hair still a little damp from the swim we took before leaving the beach. I'm halfway through a greasy, ketchup-coated burger – usually I would never think of touching anything like that, but since I'm on holiday it seems only fair to try something different – while Warren is grumpily eating a hot dog which is smothered in onions and mustard. "I still say you cheated," he says, scowling. "I never dropped that last point, either – I just tripped and the ball fell out of my hands!"

"Has anyone ever told you that you're adorable when you're angry?" I say, touching a fingertip to his nose affectionately.

"Not often," Warren says, perking up a little, "but that was mostly because up until a few years ago I used to fire sharp bits of metal at people when I was angry. They didn't dare risk that, you see."

"But now you're all cuddly again, you have no choice but to accept comments like that?"

"Something like that, yeah," Warren replies somewhat ruefully. "Best I can do these days is stuff a pillow with feathers and then hit people with it."

"Pillow fights? I like the sound of that," I say, chuckling. "Maybe I'll beat you at that when we get back to our hotel room, too?"

Warren raises an eyebrow. "You know what they say about pride coming before a fall, don't you? Well, this might just be one of those times."

"You keep on thinking that," I tell him. "I do enjoy it when you start believing you can win."

"I know," Warren replies, sardonically. "I love you too." His smile widens into a toothy grin as he continues "And I also love the fact that I can say that without worrying about our son trying to climb up my wings."

"It's certainly much quieter without Tom around, isn't it?" I agree, sighing. "I miss him, you know. I miss my button, too."

"I miss them as well," Warren says, "but you know as well as I do that we both needed the rest. Even the best parents need a break now and again, you know?"

"Very true," I agree, nodding. "Sometimes, I think I'm more afraid of Tom than I am of Apocalypse."

Warren laughs. "Honey, take it from one who knows old Blue-Lips better than most - Tom could make even Apocalypse wet his pants. Next to Tom, he's a pushover. I think he's –"

I don't know what the end of that sentence sounds like, because at that moment I feel a stomach-churning spasm running through my body. It flexes my spine like an uncoiled bullwhip and I can hear myself screaming in pain from what seems like miles away, over a howling wind that seems to have sprung up out of nowhere, and bizarrely seems localised to the area around where I'm sitting. Through blurry vision, I can see Warren crying out in panic and feel his frantic thoughts at the back of my mind, but the noise around me is too loud for me to make myself heard. My hands start burning, and as I look at them to see what's happened to them, they seem to fade in and out of existence as spider-webs of searing energy spread across my skin like red-hot vines. The energy expands outwards to surround me like a cocoon until it totally obscures my vision, the light burning my vision into a brilliant white haze for a moment. The pain becomes too much for me then, and my throat almost shreds into wet threads of flesh with the force of the scream that tears itself out of my lungs.

Then, just as suddenly as it started, the pain is over. The bright light darkens, shapes and colours running together like ink into blotting paper as my vision slowly returns. Blinking back a couple of bloody tears, I look around and discover that wherever I am now is not where I was two minutes ago. I am lying in a dark, grimy alleyway in a decaying urban area, the ground strewn with filthy litter, and the darkening sky indicating that either I have been unconscious for several hours, or I've somehow been transported out of San Francisco. I get to my feet unsteadily, determined to shed some light on what has just happened to me – but as I learned when I was training for my first mission with STRIKE, trying to obtain local help can be a double-edged sword, so I may well have to be careful about who I decide to trust. Running my hands through my blonde-again hair once, I close my eyes and take deep breaths until my pounding heart has relaxed itself, and my breath does not come in sharp gasps. No sense in tackling something while I'm still tripping out on adrenaline, after all. As much as I would love to go in all guns blazing, this is not one of the occasions where that would be a good idea. Alone and in an unknown location without any team-mates to help me, I don't exactly have a lot of leeway.

When I have composed myself suitably, I move stealthily to the end of the alley – and duck back quickly as I see two black-armoured figures stalking through the street about fifty metres away, their large, odd-looking rifles held casually low, and their minds awash with thick psychic shielding. Either way, they look like the kind of people I really don't want to be dealing with right now. I begin to melt back into the shadows, hoping that they will protect me – but as soon as I start moving, both of the men touch their fingers to the sides of their helmets, as if they have received some kind of signal. One of them points insistently in my direction, and I feel a coiling sense of fear in my guts despite my best efforts to dispel it. Time to bluff my way out, I think – if I try to run while they've got their fingers on the trigger, even psi-blasting them wouldn't be an option. Reflex action would still make them loose off at least a couple of rounds, and at this point I can't afford even the risk of getting shot. It's nowhere near as clean or neat as it is on television or on the cinema screen – and I should know, since I've seen plenty of gunshot wounds in my time – and I'd really rather not lose any chance of escaping without bleeding to death all over the pavement.

I keep myself hidden in the rear of the alley until the two men appear at the mouth of it. "We know you're in there, citizen. You're breaking curfew, and are therefore ordered to accompany us to the nearest detention centre so you can be held overnight, for your own safety. Please make your way out of the alley slowly, with your hands up – and please don't make any sudden movements, or we will open fire."

Curfew? Detention centre? Where the hell am I?

Deciding that discretion is definitely the better part of valour right now, I stand up and raise my hands, walking slowly into the ghostly light of the full moon. As I do so, I can see a visible change in their body language as they salute sharply – I might not be able to read them telepathically right now, but I know utter terror when I see it.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the one who had spoken before says, his head bowed and his voice a shallow echo of the coldly-confident tone of which it had been full only moments beforehand. "We didn't know it was you."

"That's... quite all right," I say, a little confused, but deciding to use this odd turn of events to my advantage anyway. "Don't worry about it. You were just doing your job – and doing it very well, I might add. Well done – you passed the test with flying colours, Mister...?"

"Hudson, ma'am," the man replies, the grimacing respirator grille on the front of his helmet giving his voice a metallic echo. "Lieutenant James Macdonald Hudson."

Oh no...

All I can feel is shock. The fact that Guardian is standing before me in what now appears to be a fully-enclosed suit of powered armour suggests unavoidably that I'm in an alternate reality right now, with the effect I felt moments ago shifting me not just away from a beach, but across a dimensional barrier as well. Almost as quickly as the sinking feeling in my gut takes hold, however, the training I received from STRIKE overpowers it and forces it into a small compartment at the rear of my mind. There is always a way out of these situations – I just have to find it. "Thank you, Mr Hudson," I say, masking my horror behind my words as best I can, before turning to his armoured colleague and continuing "And your name, soldier?"

"Corporal Elena Ivanova, sir," says the other soldier, surprising me with a female voice, though its softer edges are no less metallic than her superior officer's. "It's an honour to meet you, ma'am."

"I assure you, the pleasure is all mine," I tell her, flailing for any kind of clue as to what kind of rank or position my counterpart in this reality might hold. Nothing the two soldiers have told me has made me any less confused about just where it is I've been transported to.

"We should be getting you back to the base now, ma'am," Lieutenant Hudson says, concern evident in his voice. "It's not safe out here after curfew, even for you."

"Thank you, soldier," I tell him honestly. "That would be a very good idea indeed. I've... had a long day, so I'd really just like to get some rest."

"Yes, ma'am," Hudson says, before he inclines his head to one side as if addressing someone behind him, nodding once briefly as he does so. Then he turns his helmet's depthlessly-black eyepieces back towards me and continues "I've just called for an armoured transport, ma'am. They'll be here as soon as they can – in the meantime, we'll just have to take cover somewhere so that we won't be out in the open."

"Of course," I reply. "Good thinking again, Hudson." I can see him almost visibly swell with pride at that, which makes me more and more convinced that whoever I am in this particular timeline, I must be someone of greater importance than I've ever been in my home dimension. Although given the state of the city I'm standing in (and I'm still not sure which city that is, given the lack of visible landmarks), and the fact that the streets are being patrolled by soldiers with advanced armour and weapons, I wonder whether that's really a good thing...

It takes around twenty long minutes for the transport to arrive. While we waited, the two soldiers put their bodies in between me and the street, their voices nervous the whole time – almost as if they were afraid of staying in one spot for too long – and they only relaxed when they saw the monstrous form of the armoured personnel carrier rumble to a halt and the hatch in its side open, to reveal a soldier in armour similar to that of my protectors. When he sees me, he immediately salutes as sharply as they did, his black-armoured fingers touching the brow of his helmet just below what I can only assume is some kind of rank insignia painted onto its right temple – insignia which is repeated on the left side of his chest. "Commissar Braddock," he says, looking like he's afraid to make eye contact with me for very long. "We'll be back at headquarters as soon as we're able."

Commissar? The word slams into my brain like a hammer. That's the reason they're all so afraid of me... but why would I have that rank? I suppose that's just another question I'll have to ask my counterpart – if we ever get to meet each other, that is...

The transport grinds through deserted streets, past buildings that look like they have seen better days, their windows shattered and their brickwork scarred by what look like shrapnel marks. I don't see much of them, as the transport's front windows are not wide, and there are no vision slits in the side of the vehicle either, but what I can see doesn't fill me with confidence. This place, wherever it is, looks like nothing so much as a war zone. No wonder these soldiers were keen to keep me safe.

Then the transport emerges into a far more modern and less run-down area, its buildings and streets looking in far better condition than the neighbourhood I just left. Better-quality cars line the streets, and there are fewer pockmarks in the road's surface and in the walls of the apartment buildings. Unfortunately I can also see more of the armoured soldiers on patrol, their rifles held ready as they walk through the quiet city, which doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Then the transport's driver speaks to us over an intercom, to inform us that we are approaching the base, and we should be ready to disembark shortly. Each of the soldiers around me picks up their rifles and puts a hand on the release button of their harnesses, in a ritual that it seems they have all played out a thousand times before.

And then I see it.

Through the front window of the transport is a large, foreboding building of white stone, surrounded by wire fences and guard towers. In front of us is a gateway in the fence, flanked by armed men and draped with razor wire, and beyond that I can see several groups of men marching in tight, disciplined groups around what looks like a parade ground or exercise yard, and several darker buildings that are linked to the main one, which look very much like numbered barracks. As we pass through the gateway once the driver of the transport has given the guard manning the barrier an identification code, I can see that to the far right of the main building's entrance is a large vehicle garage, from which transports similar to this one emerge at regular intervals. That doesn't disturb me as much as what I can now see on the front of the building itself, however – emblazoned above the entrance to the base is a large hammer and sickle emblem, under which the words "security station" are written in Cyrillic script. Russian isn't my strong suit, admittedly, but I know enough of it from reading Logan's mind so many times that the words make sense immediately. My shock is interrupted by the driver of the transport telling us that we should disembark now. The squad of troopers forms a knot around me as we move from the transport to inside the building's lobby, and then march off, presumably to the barracks to recover from their shift and prepare themselves for tomorrow. The squad leader, Hudson, remains behind, though, and walks me up to the front desk of the building, where a smartly-dressed young soldier is scribbling notes in an official ledger. Hudson gently raps on the desk with one armoured hand, and the young man looks up absently – before his eyes widen and he jumps to his feet, one hand almost gluing itself to his brow. "Sir – ma'am," he says, just as stiffly as the other soldiers, before nodding to me. "Good to see you, Commissar."

The phone on his desk rings just then, and he excuses himself to pick it up. As he listens to what the person on the other end of the line is saying, I feel a wave of swirling confusion engulf his mind for a second before his face condenses into a deep frown. Then, when he has put down the phone, he stands up, draws the pistol from the holster at his waist and points it at me. "Stay right where you are, please," he says, in a distinctly less reverent tone than the one he'd used previously. "Do not attempt to escape, or I will be forced to shoot you."

Hudson is incensed. "What are you doing, soldier? That's your Commissar!"

"No, sir," the young man says, keeping his pistol trained on me as if he thinks I will melt away right in front of him, "it isn't. Commissar Braddock just rang this phone, and she said she's been in her office all evening, without leaving the complex. So I don't know who this woman is, but she's definitely not who you think she is." He pauses. "The Commissar asked that she brought up to her office right away, sir."

"She said what?" Hudson asks, cocking his head in surprise. "Did she tell you why, soldier?"

"No, sir," the young man says again. "She just said she wanted to speak to this woman personally."

"Orders are orders, I guess," Hudson says thoughtfully, before he raises his rifle and points it directly at my heart. "Better not keep the Commissar waiting – the elevator is behind you, whoever you are. Move. Now." Thinking that annoying a man with a really large rifle would not be the best course of action I could pursue, I turn and put my hands behind my head before walking towards the nearest of the two lifts in the corner of the room. As I do so I can feel the rifle's cold barrel pressing into the base of my spine, ushering me forward redundantly. When we reach the lift, Hudson reaches past me to tap in a series of numbers on the keypad between each set of lift doors, which I can only assume is a code of some kind. Clearly, as a superior officer he has access to the Commissar's office where a rank-and-file soldier wouldn't. When the lift arrives, he jabs his gun into my back again, impatiently. When we are both inside the lift, he asks me to turn around – and when I do so, he surges forward and grabs my throat with both hands, slamming me back against the wall and almost snapping at least three of my ribs. "I don't like being made a fool of," he snarls. "Why did the rebels send you here? What do they want?"

"I don't know anything about any rebels," I gasp out of lungs that have been emptied of air. "I don't even know where I am."

"Liar!" Hudson bellows. "Tell me the truth!"

"I am telling you the truth," I say, choking out my words as his armoured thumbs press into my windpipe. "I don't know what else to say to you that will make you believe me."

"Think of something, and think of it quickly," he snaps. "You don't have anything to gain by keeping quiet – why make things more difficult for yourself?"

The lift chimes then, indicating that we have reached wherever it is that we were going, for which I am very grateful. "We'll finish this little... chat later," Hudson growls as he lets go of me and stands to attention, "if the Commissar lets you live. Don't think I'll forget about this."

"I'm sure you won't," I say, coughing and rubbing my neck to ease out the lingering pain.

Then the doors open onto a neat and well-maintained office, with metal bookshelves on either side, a rack of bladed weapons standing just to the right of the lift, and a desk at the far end of the room. There is a minimal amount of moonlight coming in through a large plate-glass window behind the desk, the clouds in the sky obscuring it almost totally, so the room is being lit largely by a succession of lights set into the walls at regular intervals. That all becomes secondary to who is stood in front of the lift, however, because she... is me. Her face is a little harsher, certainly, and she is clad in a crisply-maintained military uniform with a peaked cap set onto her tightly-bound blonde hair, but there is no mistaking who I'm looking at.

"The prisoner, ma'am," Hudson says, his hand snapping up to his brow.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," she says, returning his salute absently. "That will be all. Oh, and Lieutenant? If you try to follow up that little threat you just made, I will have you thrown into a gulag in Alaska faster than you can blink. Are we clear?"

Hudson seems to shrink a couple of sizes. "Yes, ma'am," he says. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

"See that you are," my doppelganger says, her eyes narrowing. "Dismissed." Then, when Hudson has disappeared back into the lift, she turns her gaze back to me. "If he hurt you, I apologise. Now, I believe we have a lot to talk about." She gestures to the padded chair in front of her desk with one gloved hand. "Take a seat, and we can get started."

Realising that I don't really have any other options at the moment, I walk over to the chair and sit down, folding one leg over the other and glancing absently at the collection of weapons that the Commissar has collected. There are a couple of katana blades, some serrated combat knives, a claymore and some small daggers – all of which are extremely well-maintained, their blades glinting sharply in the artificial light. "You seem to have quite a collection," I say conversationally, gesturing to them with one hand and hoping that small talk will help break the sense of creeping unease I can feel growing insistently at the back of my mind.

"Yes," the Commissar says, shrugging. "I've always had an affinity for blades. I don't neglect my firearms practice, of course, but I would much rather use cold steel if I can get the chance. It's saved my life more times than I can count." She pauses, tapping her chin thoughtfully, before she gets right back to the discussion she clearly wants to have. "Do you know why I brought you up here rather than let my soldiers shoot you?"

I shrug. "I can't say I do, no – but I suppose I ought to be thankful anyway."

"Don't be too grateful just yet," the Commissar replies coldly. "I have a great deal of questions for you, and I don't like being kept away from the truth. That's what this little chat is really about." She pauses. "Normally I'd take that kind of information with my powers, but your mind is... strange. I can't seem to link with it. All I can tell is that you're alive – the rest is just white noise."

It's only then that I notice exactly what she's talking about. Her mind is just as closed to me as mine is to her, with nothing but colours and scratchy static hiding underneath her surface thoughts. Hank would probably say that this is a direct result of two versions of the same person trying to occupy the same thought-space, which is as good an explanation as I can think of for now. With more pressing matters to attend to, it seems foolish to dwell on something as relatively trivial as the mechanics of cross-reality telepathy...

"I'd be happy to tell you what I know for certain," I say, the unease I felt moments before getting just a little bit stronger, "but you probably wouldn't believe anything I say."

The Commissar's eyes narrow. "Try me. We can start with you telling me exactly where you came from, and why you've got my face."

"I shouldn't be here," I say, "and I don't just mean in this office, or this city – I mean this whole reality; and that's also the reason I've got your face. Putting it as simply as I can... I'm you, Commissar, but from somewhere entirely different, where none of your history ever happened. I was having lunch at the beach with my husband about an hour ago, and some kind of... whirlwind brought me here. I don't know how, or why, but it left me here in an alleyway, right before two of your soldiers found me. I don't know what else to say to you, because that's all that I can say."

My doppelganger looks thoughtful for a few moments, raising her eyebrows and looking at the surface of her desk as she digests what I've just told her. Then she looks up at me again, and just as I'm expecting her to pull her pistol and shoot me, she gets up from behind her desk and says "Come with me. I have someone I'd like you to meet."

The shock of her response is like a slap in the face. "You believe me?" I ask, stunned.

"No," the Commissar replies, "not yet. You've got quite a way to go before you convince me you aren't a shapeshifter who's been sent by the resistance to replace me – but you're fortunate that Doctor Pym recently told me about some private research he was carrying out in between doing his work for the Red Army. He said that he was convinced of the existence of parallel realities, and he was building a machine to test that theory. He contacted me an hour ago to tell me the machine had gone online – which, coincidentally, is when you say you appeared here." She raises her eyebrows briefly. "Normally I wouldn't count that as evidence enough to convince me that someone was telling the truth, but in this case... I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt for now." Then she draws her gun and gestures towards the lift doors with it. "However... I think it would be best for Doctor Pym to take a blood sample from you so he can make sure you are who you say you are. I'm sure even the best shapeshifter can't make their blood keep its shape when it's out of their body." She gestures towards the lift door again. "Let's go."

We enter the lift, the Commissar's pistol snug against my ribs. Then she draws a plastic keycard from her uniform's jacket pocket and pushes it into a slot below the panel of numbered buttons on the lift's wall. A button that had previously been unlit suddenly winks into life, and the Commissar pushes it once, and then once again. "There's a lot of classified material where we're going," she says, by way of explanation. "I prefer to be secure when it comes to information – especially the kind of information that Doctor Pym deals in."

"A good policy," I say, seeing the logic in her thinking... although that's just because it's precisely what I'd do.

The lift hums downwards past the ground floor and then hisses to a halt. The doors open onto an almost painfully white corridor, with signs in both English and Cyrillic script plastered on the tiled walls at regular intervals. The Commissar nudges me out of the lift, turns left and then guides me along the corridor until we reach a door with a biohazard symbol painted in its centre. My double reaches past me and taps an entry code into the keypad at the door's side. It pops open with a squeak of protest, and then the Commissar edges me through. When we're both inside, I take a quick look around to see where I am. It's not an encouraging sight. There are work benches spread throughout the room, experiments and Bunsen burners strewn liberally across them, and pieces of half-finished circuitry litter the floor. Along one side of the room is a large machine, huge banks of unlit control lights studded into its four curved arms, which bend together at their tops to form two interlinked arches. At the base of the arms is a flat dais marked with an X, in the centre of which is a short antenna similar to the one which extends downward from the apex of the two arches above it. Next to it is its power source, a huge generator with cables as thick as my forearm running to and from the machine. It is still and quiet now, but I have to wonder what kind of sound it would make if it was active.

Along another wall, a blond man in a lab coat is hunched over the bench he is working at, busily slicing at something with a scalpel. His mind is incalculably easier to read than my double, reams of information spilling out of it like water from an overflowing cup. Not all of it is pleasant viewing.

My double rolls her eyes at his inability to realise he has guests, and says "Doctor Pym, you have guests." The blond man turns his head away from his work almost absently, and then he does a double take when he sees that there are two of us standing before him.

"Sir?" he says, sounding a little confused. "What's going on?"

"That's what we're going to find out," the Commissar says, before she takes off her jacket and rolls up the sleeve of her shirt, exposing her forearm. "I need you to take a blood sample from each of us, and test them to see if they're identical." It's only when she's finished rolling up her sleeve that I notice that her skin is criss-crossed by train-track scars that look, bizarrely, like tally marks. What has she been keeping score of, I wonder?

She tells me to roll my own sleeve up as well, and when I've done so Doctor Pym takes a small amount of blood from each of us before he slots it into a squat device next to a rack of empty test-tubes on the other side of the room, which I'm guessing is there to help him in whatever experiments he does down here. It whirrs for a few moments before it spits out a short spool of paper, which he tears off and then reads. When he has finished doing so, his eyes widen. "They're the same blood type," he begins. "They have virtually the same iron content, the same consistency... everything matches, with a variance of barely point-five percent. For all intents and purposes, Commissar... that woman is you." He pauses. "Where did she come from?"

"It seems, Comrade Pym," the Commissar begins, gesturing dismissively at the bulky arches in the corner of the room, "that your research into parallel realities was a success. This... thing... you built seems to have opened a gateway to one, and brought this woman through."

Pym's face lights up, his expression like that of a child on Christmas morning. "You're from another reality?" he asks me, his excitement drumming at the edges of my mind like scrabbling fingertips. "

"As far as I can tell, yes," I say, shrugging. "None of what I've seen of this city looks familiar to me – in fact I still can't tell which city this is."

"You really are from another universe, aren't you?" my counterpart laughs. "This is San Francisco."

That stops me in my tracks. "But... the hammer and sickle on the front of this building –"

"– has been the national flag of this country for over half a century," the Commissar finishes. "This isn't the United States any more, sister." She smiles coldly. "This is Red America."