Danny Hebert hated the cold.
It bit and nipped at every exposed patch of skin, despite his attempts to bundle up, and the fierce wind blowing against him didn't help. The sea was turbulent, threatening to swallow his small fishing boat and drag him to the frigid depths below, and a stinging rain whipped to the sides, soaking him to the bone. He had sailed upwards, carefully skirting along the Canadian coastline and into Arctic waters, where there was good fishing.
His hands were pale and shivering as he worked, pulling up yet another empty cage. Getting work as a deep-sea fisherman was getting harder and harder with each passing day, as the oceans were depleted of their bountiful stock, and even here he was having trouble getting enough to break even. It didn't help that the bigger ships, the ones owned by actual companies, did his job on a far bigger scale.
Hauling the cage back onto the deck, he muttered a curse to himself and made for the cabin. He had to struggle against the wind to shut the door, but he eventually managed to get it done. Rubbing his hands, he decided to switch on the radio, if only to keep himself distracted while he tried to warm up.
"...a dreadful sight in what used to be Moscow today, as the city perishes in nuclear fire. Earlier this morning, the creature known as Behemoth appeared in the Red Square, where it was engaged by an assortment of local parahumans and the Russian military. Despite managing to inflict grievous wounds on the monster, the defensive forces were forced back, and a small nuclear warhead was-"
He turned the radio off.
Warmth was finally starting to return to his hands. Breathing into them, he put on a dry pair of gloves and went out again, wincing as the wind bit into his face. One more haul, then he was heading home, back to Annette. There was no way in hell he was going to keep up with this if he kept on getting small fry and garbage.
That was when he noticed it. Something close to the boat, nearly as big as he was and bobbing in the violent waves. At first, he thought it was just a hunk of ice, drifting down from the Arctic, but as he peered closer at it, he realized that it was artificial in nature. It appeared to be made out of a silver metal of some kind, with a sleek form, and he found himself wondering if it was valuable loot.
There was one way to be certain. Grabbing the cage again, he hurled it at the silver object. The first time, he missed and had to pull it back, but the second time was a success. Once he was sure that the cage had the thing secured, he began to tow it closer to the boat. Sea spray drenched him as he worked, but he ignored the cold, tired muscles straining as he pulled the silver object closer.
As he got a better look at it, he realized that it looked almost like a missile of sorts, or like something from an old science fiction story. Small fins sloped out from the wide base, and a series of bulges ran equidistant around the middle, almost imperceptible.
Finally, it clunked against the side of his boat, and he pulled it up. It was far lighter than he'd expected, and as he set it down with a sharp ringing noise, he realized that it was actually hollow. It definitely had to be a storage container of sorts, but of what?
He ran his hands over the smooth metal. It was surprisingly warm to the touch, and almost pliable like plastic as he pressed down on it. He looked around, searching for a handle or a hatch, but found nothing. The thing didn't even seem to have bolts or screws; it was as if it was made from a single piece of metal.
Was it tinkertech? It seemed more and more like a viable explanation with each passing second. Those barely-understood capes could make laser cannons out of junk; it wouldn't be out of their league to make something like this. Hell, he occasionally sold scrap he found to one in Newfoundland.
And if that was the case, then who made it? There didn't appear to be any form of identification on the rocket-like object. No barcodes, no sigils, nothing.
Wait. There was something, a faint design etched into the metal. A stylized 'S' of sorts, within the outline of a diamond. He ran his hands over it, his brow furrowed.
If it was tinkertech, then he could sell it to the local PRT for good money; they were always greedy for stuff they could try to study. The tinker in Newfoundland might be interested as well, but he was sometimes away from port on some strange task.
Danny straightened with a sigh. Something told him he was going to have to discuss it, first.
"You brought it here?" Annette asked, incredulous. "What were you thinking?"
Danny looked across the strange object at his wife. It was surprisingly easy to bring it to the garage, where he had plopped it down on a table and called Annette down. Her reaction was, to say at the very least, unamused, and his explanation did not help.
"I, uh, got cold feet," he replied, rubbing the back of his head. "I was going to bring it in to the PRT, but I suddenly started thinking that, hey, they might think I was a mad tinker with a bomb, and... I decided to just come back here with it."
Annette pulled off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Okay, I can see that, I guess. Kinda. But what if it is a bomb or something?"
"It didn't explode on the way here, so I thought it might be safe. I mean, it took a good few hits when the weather got really rough, and nothing happened even then."
"I think we should call the PRT, see if they can take it from us," Annette said, warily running a hand over the metal of the object. "Maybe they can-"
She was interrupted by a sharp click, one that sent both of them taking a startled step back. Eyes fixed on the strange container, they watched as a hatch slid open, and a small mechanical arm come out. It began to shine a bright green light on the wall, then circled around the room, as if it was scanning for something. The Heberts simply stood and watched, paralyzed with shock, as the light swept over them.
The arm stopped after three revolutions, then retracted back into the container. An even larger hatch sunk in and slid open, accompanied by a soft hiss of air as the inside of the container was exposed.
Then, a baby began to cry.
Danny glanced back at Annette, his jaw agape. His wife returned the favor, then looked back at the rocket. There was a moment's pause, and then she took a cautious stepped forward.
"Anne-" Danny began.
"Honey," she whispered, reaching her hands inside. "Look."
Slowly, gently, Annette pulled a baby out of the container. The infant was bundled in what appeared to be a red blanket, which was now the same color of its cheeks. Its cries ceased when Annette brought it close to her chest, and Danny stepped closer to it, a surreal feeling washing over him.
"H-how," he said, disbelief clear in his voice. "I mean, that thing was closed for three days straight, and it... it was in the water..."
"Shhhh," Annette whispered, gently rocking the baby in her arms. "It's okay, it's okay."
Danny looked down at the baby's face, its piercing blue eyes, and it looked back at him.
Then, it giggled, and something changed in him.
"I don't think anyone's coming for her," he said.
They had moved to the living room, after hastily covering the rocket with a tarp. Annette sat across from him, still holding the baby. It was asleep, now, and still wrapped in the red blanket.
"It wouldn't matter if she did have someone," Annette said. "What kind of monster puts a baby in a box and puts her in the middle of the ocean?"
Danny blinked. "Her?"
"I checked. She's a girl. And I'm not just ready to give her up."
"Who said anything about that?"
"You didn't, but you implied we might have trouble," Annette replied. "Why send her to an orphanage when she could have parents here, right now? How long have we been trying for a baby?"
"A while," Danny sighed. "A very long while."
The baby cooed in her sleep, and Annette rocked her again. Danny watched, a small smile on his face.
"We're going to need to fabricate something if we go through with this," he said. "We need a birth certificate for her."
"We also need a name, first," Annette said. "How about... Sarah?"
Danny shook his head. "Nah; she doesn't seem like a Sarah. Claire? Lois?"
"I'm not feeling that, either. What other names did we come up with, all those months back?"
"Well, there's Tara, Lana, Zoe, Taylor-"
"Ooh, I like that one," Annette said. "Now what for a middle name?"
"Let's go with your name," Danny replied. "You have your mother's name as a middle, and I have my dad's; it'd only make sense."
"Yeah, that sounds good. Taylor Annette Hebert."
Danny smiled. "Taylor Annette Hebert."
The baby cooed again, as if in agreement.
It was a cloudy day in Newfoundland when Danny came to port. The surrounding town used to be quite bustling, especially during the summer, but now there were only a half-dozen boats in the harbor. It wasn't a isolated case, either; coastal areas around the globe were suffering. Ever since that Leviathan monster appeared, people had become scared of port towns.
After securing his boat, he stepped onto the pier, tightly gripping the canister in his pocket. He had found it in the capsule, after checking to see what else had come with Taylor. It seemed to have a cap, but it refused to budge, no matter how hard he tried. Annette was not happy when she found out about the broken power tools.
He chuckled to himself at the thought, and walked to the bus stop.
Thankfully, the tinker was at the office when Danny finally arrived. After getting buzzed in by a rather heavyset clerk, he walked down the hall and knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Danny. I think I have something for you."
"Oh? Do come in, then."
Danny opened the door and stepped inside. "Morning, Andrew."
"It's nice to see you," Andrew replied, leaning back in his seat. "So, what do you have this time? Make sure it's nothing too illicit like last time; the authorities' patience wears a bit thin with me."
"I think that's for you to decide," Danny said, producing the canister.
Andrew's brow furrowed. Rising from his seat, the tinker walked over and grabbed the canister, studying it intently. He peered at the cap, then tapped it, listening keenly to the hollow sound it made.
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
"I found it in the water, far from the coast," Danny replied. "I tried to open it, but the cap won't budge."
"I wish I had heavier equipment in the office," Andrew muttered. "I think I could still get a result, though."
Setting the canister down on the table, he produced a hand-sized device from a drawer. With a flick of a switch, it beeped to life, and he gave it a once over before setting to work. Holding it over the canister, he began to slowly sweep from side to side, eyes glued to a small screen on the gadget.
"Hmm... very interesting structure. Different from what I usually work with." Andrew glanced up at Danny. "Would you mind if I held onto this for a while?"
"Well... I'll give you a few hours. I have to sell the boat, anyway."
"Yeah," Danny replied. "It's getting harder to make a living off these waters. There's already a job opening at the docks back home; Annette wants me to take up on it."
"Well, I'll miss having you visit," Andrew said. "You're a lot nicer than most of the sellers I have to deal with."
"It was good money," Danny admitted as he headed for the door. "It just wasn't enough to pay the bills."
A few hours later, Danny returned to find Andrew at the desk, the canister before him. There was a haggard look on the tinker's face, as though he had gone for too long without rest. An assortment of gadgets cluttered the table, some of them dismantled.
"Something wrong?" Danny asked.
Andrew looked up, rubbing his face wearily. "This has got to be the most stubborn thing I've ever had to work with. X-ray scanners don't get a good reading, and neither does sonar. The laser failed to cut a hole when I used it, even after I upgraded it. Unscrewing the cap with hydraulics didn't work, either. I ground smooth a diamond drill on the thing, and a nano-cutter became chipped and dulled when I tried to cut into the metal."
"That's not very normal, I take it," Danny said.
"The material isn't even enhanced by a forcefield; it's just that tough. I don't think any tinker has actually made something on such a level, which is really saying something."
"What? You think it's from outer space or something?" Danny joked, only for his eyes to widen when he saw Andrew's reaction.
"I'm not jumping to that point," the tinker finally said. "Occam's Razor is still in effect, even when dealing with parahumans. No, there has to be a more believable explanation, somehow."
Andrew picked up the canister, twirling in his hand. "I might have something in my main lab that could handle it. Is fifty-thousand a good deal?"
"Fifty grand?" Danny sputtered. "You've never paid me even a fraction of that."
"That was before you gave me a possibly extraterrestrial object," came the swift retort. "I understand if you want to keep it, of course; it would definitely make for a nice decoration."
"Could I come back to you on it?" Danny squeaked.
"I don't see any reason why not," Andrew replied with a shrug, handing back the canister. "The preliminary scans I made could already be useful for a project I'm working on; there's definitely a computer of some sort in there."
Danny pocketed the canister. "It was nice seeing you, Andrew."
Danny smiled as Taylor played with her toys, even though he hadn't been able to sleep for days. The docks accepted his resume, and the pay was good. Not spectacular, but better than fishing.
"I don't think she's from around here," he finally said, turning to look back at Annette.
His wife raised her head from the couch. "What do you mean by that?"
"The guy I brought the stuff to? He couldn't make heads or tails of it. Said it was unlike anything he had ever seen before."
"So, what? She's an alien or something?"
"It was just something that was put out there," Danny replied hurriedly.
Taylor giggled as she chewed on her stuffed animal, then suddenly began to wail.
Annette sighed. "I'll go get the formula."
"That's another thing," Danny called after her. "We tried to have her nurse on you, but it didn't work, even after following that medical advice. What if that's because she's not..."
"Human? Because, despite looking just like a baby girl, she's actually a little green man?" Annette finished, incredulous. "Do you hear yourself right now?"
"Maybe the pod did it. Whatever kept her safe during those three days might have also made her look like us. It did open only after you touched it."
"Alright, then let's assume that you're right. Why bring it up?"
"We're going to have to bring her to the doctor for checkups and vaccinations," Danny replied. "What if they find out, and she's taken away from us by men in suits?"
Annette paused at that. She continued to rock Taylor, gently pressing the bottle to the baby's mouth.
"If she get's sick, we're taking her to the hospital," she finally said. "No ifs, ands, or buts."
"Alright," Danny said.
"I wonder if there'll be signs," Annette murmured, her voice soft. "A way to know for sure she's not from around here."
"She did what?!"
The kindergarten teacher sighed, leaning forward on the desk. "The other kids saw it, Mr. and Mrs. Hebert. Taylor broke Chris Tarpey's nose during recess."
"But he started it!" Taylor whined, arms folded as she sat on Annette's lap. "He was pushed Emma off the swingset and laughed at her! He was being a big meanie."
"Daddy will handle this," Danny assured, ruffling his daughter's hair. Already he could feel his temper swell, threatening to burst. "Miss, how could Taylor have done this? She's five, for god's sake."
"All the students saw it," the teacher repeated. "Miss Barnes can testify; she was the one who got pushed off the swings."
"So the Tarpey boy actually did it?" Annette asked. "Why is she in trouble and not him? She was just helping a friend."
"He's already been reprimanded for what he's done, and he was the instigator. But there's a difference between giving a girl a scraped knee, and breaking someone's nose, Mrs. Hebert. It wasn't a small break, either; it was like someone stepped on a rotten tomato."
"Can we at least see what this kid looks like?" Danny asked.
The teacher complied, pulling up a yearbook draft. "He's the first on the middle row."
Chris Tarpey, Danny saw, was not a small kid. If he had to hazard a guess, he'd say the boy was in second grade, maybe even third, and he was a head taller than Taylor. And, judging by the pudgy frame, about twice the weight.
"I can't believe this," he said, the words almost coming out as a growl. "He's picking on kindergarteners, and you're making a fuss about my five-year-old daughter teaching him a lesson?"
"Honey," Annette warned, putting a hand on his arm. "Deep breaths."
"All we're asking for is that Taylor apologizes to Chris tomorrow, after the doctor is done with his nose," the teacher said. "Taylor's not looking at detention, here."
Danny let out a long sigh. "Fine."
"Good. We're finished; you can leave if you want."
"How are her grades?" Annette asked. "Just want to know before we head out."
"Exemplary, actually. Taylor's a smart cookie."
"At least that's good to hear, honey," Annette offered, patting Danny on the arm. "Come on, let's head home."
Danny nodded and rose from his seat. Taking Taylor into his arms, he carried her out of the school and to the car. She was heavy for her size, he noted, and only getting heavier. Buckling her into the back seat, he hopped into the driver's seat. Once Annette was in the car as well, he took off.
As he drove back home, he glanced back at Taylor. The toddler's gaze was focused on the view outside the window, a half-smile on her face. Another strange thing; she was also quiet for her age.
"I hope you understand why you're in trouble, young lady," Annette said, turning in her seat.
"Because Chris Tarpey is a big meanie?" Taylor replied, folding her arms again.
"No, it's because you hit him too hard," Danny said. "There's nothing wrong in protecting a friend, but that doesn't mean you should be as mean to the bully as he is to you."
"Because that's what bullies do. You, Taylor Hebert, are not a bully. If someone is mean to you and your friend, make them stop. But don't be mean. Don't hurt them just because they hurt you."
Taylor pouted. "But-"
For a few minutes, they drove silently home. Spring was coming, and the trees were becoming green again. In a few weeks, they could head to the nearby beaches, which would be fun.
"I like the cloud colors," Taylor piped up.
"You mean white?" Annette asked.
"No, the other colors. The swirly things and the stripey things," Taylor replied, manner-of-factly. "I also like the dots on the flowers."
Danny exchanged a glance with his wife, who returned the favor. No words needed to be said; the message was clear enough.
We need to talk.
Years later, in the middle of yet another summer night, he woke to the sound of Taylor screaming.
He was out of bed and in her room before he even realized it, a baseball bat clenched tightly in one fist. Taylor was sitting upright in bed, hands clamped over her ears. He was relieved, if only a little, when he saw no intruders in the room. Dropping the bat on the floor, he sat down on the foot of the bed.
"Honey, what's wrong?" he asked.
"I-it's Mom," Taylor sobbed, pulling at her hair. "I h-heard her car hit something, a-and glass breaking..."
"Shhh," Danny said. "It's just a bad dream, Taylor. Mom's fine. It's just a late shift, that's all."
"I wasn't s-sleeping," came the choked reply. "I was listening around, and... and... oh god! I can't hear her anymore, Daddy! I can't hear her heart!"
"You're just stressed out," Danny tried to assure, ignoring the cold knot forming in his stomach. "That's all."
Taylor looked at him, tears rimming her inhumanly blue eyes.
"Dad," she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. "What's wrong with me?"
Danny sighed, if only to try and calm himself. "If I show you something, will you stop worrying about Mom? Something to help you?"
Getting on his feet, Danny guided her down into the basement. Rummaging through a corner of the room, he pulled out a large cardboard box and placed it on the ground in front of Taylor, then opened it up. Even after years of being kept in dingy conditions, it had never lost its shine.
"What... what is it?"
"It's what we found you in," Danny replied. "You were in the water, just bobbing in this thing."
Taylor ran a hand over the smooth metal of the rocket. "F-found? You're not saying..."
"It's the only thing that makes sense. I took it to an old tinker friend of mine, and he told me that there wasn't anything like it in the world."
Taylor looked up at him, her eyes wide. "I-I'm not... I'm not your daughter?"
"You are my daughter," Danny said, pulling her into his arms. "I don't give a damn where you came from. Mom and I raised you ever since you were a baby; you're our daughter. You're Taylor Hebert."
Letting go, he pulled the canister from the box. "This was also with you. I tried unscrewing this, but it won't budge. I think it's meant for you, and you only."
As Taylor took the canister into her hands, Danny unfurled the blanket, letting her see the bright yellow 'S' on it. She took it as well, running her hands over the strange fabric it was made out of.
"You understand, now?" Danny asked, his voice soft. "That's why you're different. But that doesn't mean you heard... what you heard. It could be anything, Taylor, anything but that."
Taylor sniffed. "Okay."
Danny forced a smile. "Go back to bed, kiddo. Get some shut-eye."
She did as told, heading back up the steps with the canister and cape in her hands. Danny watched her go, then followed after her. He didn't go back to bed, however; instead, he sat down in the living room.
When the call arrived, thirty minutes later, he broke his glasses.
The funeral was a small affair. Some friends and family were present on that cold winter morning when a cedar coffin was lowered into the earth, and a prayer uttered. Annette always liked Revelation 21:6, but the words seemed to ring hollow as Danny stared at where she would forever be buried. The weather wasn't fitting for such a day. The sun was up, with nary a cloud in the blue sky; it was as though nature decided to mock his - their - loss.
Eventually, the sparse crowd began to disperse, heading to their cars and taxis, until only he and Taylor remained. A cold wind blew by, and he pulled down his wool cap to try and stay warm. Taylor didn't seem to even notice it.
"It isn't fair," she said, her voice hoarse. "It just isn't."
Danny put a hand on her shoulder. "You're right; it isn't fair at all. It isn't fair that she died, when there are horrible people still alive, or all the other bad things going on. The world isn't fair, Taylor, but that doesn't mean we should let it bring us down. She wouldn't want us to."
"I f-feel like I could've done something," Taylor choked, looking down at her hands. "That I could've.."
"Don't think about that," Danny cut off, squeezing firmly, tears welling in his own eyes. "What happened, happened. Don't let it eat away at you, Taylor."
"I'm here for a reason, aren't I? M-Mom always said that if you were good at something, then you should help people with it. Maybe... maybe that's why I'm like this, Dad."
"Maybe. But we can't focus on a word like 'maybe'."
He took a deep breath. "Is there anything you want to say to her, before we go? Something you don't want me to hear?"
"I'll get the car warmed up."
Danny squeezed her shoulder one last time, then began to walk away. Sparing his daughter a glance, he saw her look down at a pair of glasses in her hand. Annette's old glasses, before her eyesight got worse.
Her lips moved, silently, then she slipped the glasses on.
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The Woman of Tomorrow, Prologue: From Another World