“Are you ready to meet your new family?”
She tore her gaze away from the window, where snow was heaped up on bamboo fences and a squat android was clearing a path through the slush, and looked at the man seated opposite her. Though he’d been kind to her throughout their trip, two full days of being passed between a hover, a maglev train, two passenger ships, and yet another hover, he still had a nervous smile that made her fidget.
Plus, she kept forgetting his name.
“I don’t remember the old family,” she said, adjusting her heavy left leg so that it didn’t stick out quite so far between their seats.
His lips twisted awkwardly into an expression that was probably meant to be reassuring, and this ended their conversation. His attention fell down to a device he never stopped looking at, with a screen that cast a greenish glow over his face. He wasn’t a very old man, but his eyes always seemed tired and his clothes didn’t fit him right. Though he’d been clean-cut when he first came to claim her, he was now in need of a razor.
She returned her gaze to the snow-covered street. The suburb struck her as crowded and confused. A series of short one-story shacks would be followed by a mansion with a frozen water fountain in its courtyard and red-tiled roofs. After that, a series of clustered town houses and maybe a run-down apartment complex, before more tiny shacks took over. It all looked like someone had taken every kind of residence they could think of and spilled them across a grid of roads, not caring where anything landed.
She suspected that her new home wasn’t anything like the rolling farmland they’d left behind in Europe, but she’d been in such a foggy-brained daze at the time that she couldn’t remember much of anything before the train ride. Except that it had been snowing there, too. She was already sick of the snow and the cold. They made her bones ache where her fleshy parts were connected to her steel prosthetics.
She swiveled her gaze back toward the man seated across from her. “Are we almost there?”
He nodded without looking up. “Almost, Cinder.”
Enfolding her fingers around the scar tissue on her wrist, she waited, hoping he would say something else to ease her nerves, but he didn’t seem the type to notice anyone’s anxiety above his own. She imagined calling him Dad, but the word was laughably unfamiliar, even inside her head. She couldn’t even compare him with her real father, as her memory had been reduced to a blank slate during the intrusive surgeries and all she had left of her parents was their sterile identity profiles, with plain photos that held no recognition and a tag at the top labeling them as DECEASED. They’d been killed in the hover crash that had also claimed her leg and hand.
As confirmed by all official records, there was no one else. Cinder’s grandparents were also dead. She had no siblings. No aunts or uncles or friends—at least, none willing to claim her. Perhaps there wasn’t a human being in all of Europe who would have taken her in, and that’s why they’d had to search as far as New Beijing before they found her a replacement family.
She squinted, straining to remember who they were. The faceless people who had pulled her from the wreckage and turned her into this. Doctors and surgeons, no doubt. Scientists. Programmers. There must have been a social worker involved, but she couldn’t recall for sure. Her memory gave her only dizzy glimpses of the French countryside and this stranger sitting across from her, entranced by the device in his hands.
Her new stepfather.
The hover began to slow, drifting toward the curb. Its nose hit a snowbank and it came to a sudden shuddering stop. Cinder grabbed the bar overhead, but the hover had already settled down, slightly off-kilter in the packed snow.