“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.
“Here we are,” said the man, eyes twinkling as the hover door slid open.
She stayed plastered to her seat, her hand still gripping the bar, as a gust of icy wind swirled around them. They’d arrived at one of the tiny shack houses, one with peeling paint and a gutter that hung loose beneath the weight of the snow. Still, it was a sweet little house, all white with a red roof and enough dead branches sticking up from the ground that Cinder could almost imagine a garden come springtime.
The man paid the hover with a swipe of his wrist, then stepped out onto a pathway that had been plowed down to a sheet of ice. The door to the house opened before he’d taken a step and two girls about Cinder’s own age came barreling down the front steps, squealing. The man crouched down on the pathway, holding out his arms as the girls launched themselves into him.
From her place inside the hover, Cinder heard the man laugh for the first time.
A woman appeared inside the doorway, belting a quilted robe around her waist. “Girls, don’t suffocate your father. He’s had a long trip.”
“Don’t listen to your mother, just this once. You can suffocate me all you like.” He kissed his daughters on the tops of their heads, then stood, keeping a firm grip on their hands. “Would you like to meet your new sister?” he asked, turning back to face the hover. He seemed surprised at the empty pathway behind him. “Come on out, Cinder.”
She shivered and pried her hand away from the safety bar. Sliding toward the door, she tried to be graceful stepping out onto the curb, but the distance to the ground was shorter than she’d expected and her heavy leg was inflexible as it crunched through the compact ice. She cried out and stumbled, barely catching herself on the hover’s doorframe.
The man hurried back toward her, holding her up as well as he could by the arm, one hand gripping her metal fingers. “It’s all right, perfectly natural. Your muscles are weak right now, and it will take time for your wiring to fully integrate with your nervous system.”
Cinder stared hard at the ground, shivering both from cold and embarrassment. She couldn’t help finding irony in the man’s words, though she dared not laugh at them—what did integrated wiring have to do with being perfectly natural?
“Cinder,” the man continued, coaxing her forward, “this is my eldest daughter, Pearl, and my youngest, Peony. And that is their lovely mother, Adri. Your new stepmother.”
She peered up at his two daughters from behind a curtain of fine brown hair.
They were both staring openly at her metal hand.
Cinder tried to shrink away, but then the youngest girl, Peony, asked, “Did it hurt when they put it on?”
Steady on her feet again, Cinder pried her hand out of the man’s hold and tucked it against her side. “I don’t remember.”
“She was unconscious for the surgeries, Peony,” said the man.
“Can I touch it?” she asked, her hand already inching forward.
“That’s enough, Garan. People are watching.”
Cinder jumped at the shrill voice, but when she looked up, her “stepmother” was not looking at them, but at the house across the street.
Garan. That was the man’s name. Cinder committed it to memory as she followed Adri’s gaze and saw a man staring at her through his front window.
“It’s freezing out here,” said Adri. “Pearl, go find the android and have her bring in your father’s luggage. Peony, you can show Cinder to her room.”
“You mean my room,” said Pearl, her lip curling as she began to shuffle back toward the house. “I’m the oldest. I shouldn’t have to share with Peony.”
To Cinder’s surprise, the younger girl turned and latched on to her arm, tugging her forward. She nearly slipped on the ice and would have been embarrassed again, except she noticed that Peony’s feet were slipping around too as she pulled Cinder ahead. “Pearl can take the room,” she said. “I don’t mind sharing with Cinder.”
Adri’s face was taut as she looked down at their intertwined elbows. “Don’t argue with me, either of you.”
Condensation sprang up on Cinder’s steel hand as she went from the chilled air to the house’s warm entryway, but Peony didn’t seem to notice as she led her toward the back of the house.
“I don’t know why Pearl’s upset,” she said, shouldering open a door. “This is the smallest room in the house. Our bedroom is much nicer.” Releasing Cinder, she went to pull open the blinds on the single small window. “But look, you can see the neighbor’s cherry tree. It’s really pretty when it blooms.”
Cinder didn’t follow her to the window, instead casting her gaze around the room. It seemed small, but it was larger than the sleeper car on the maglev train and she had no prior bedrooms to compare it with. A mattress sat in the corner with blankets tucked neatly around its sides, and a small dresser stood empty on the nearest wall.
“Pearl used to have a netscreen in here, but Mom moved it into the kitchen. You can come watch mine whenever you want to, though. Do you like Nightmare Island? It’s my favorite drama.”
“Nightmare Island?” No sooner had Cinder said it than her brain started streaming data across her vision. A popular drama aimed at teenage girls that includes a cast of thirty-six young celebrities who are caught up in lies, betrayal, romance, and the scheme of a crazed scientist who—
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it!”
Cinder scrunched her shoulders beside her ears. “I’ve heard of it,” she said, blinking the data away. She wondered if there was a way to get her brain to stop doing that every time she heard an unfamiliar phrase. It had been happening almost nonstop since she’d woken up from the surgery. “That’s the show with the crazed scientist, right? I’ve never seen it, though.”
Peony looked relieved. “That’s fine, I have a subscription to the whole feed. We’ll watch it together.” She bounced on her feet and Cinder had to tear her gaze away from the girl’s excitement. Her gaze landed on a box half-tucked behind the door. A small pronged hand was hanging over the edge.
“What’s this?” she said, leaning forward. She kept her hands locked behind her back.
“Oh, that’s Iko.” Abandoning the window, Peony crouched down and scooted the box out from the wall. It was filled with random android parts all jumbled together—the spherical body took up most of the space, along with a glossy white head, a sensor lens, a clear bag filled with screws and program chips. “She had some sort of glitch in her personality chip and Mom heard that she could get more money for her if she sold her off in pieces rather than as a whole, but nobody wanted them. Now she just sits here, in a box.”
Cinder shuddered, wondering how common glitches were in androids. Or cyborgs.
“I really liked Iko when she was working. She was a lot more fun than that boring garden android.” Peony picked up the thin metal arm with the three prongs and held it up so that the fingers clicked together. “We used to play dress-up together.” Her eyes lit up. “Hey, do you like playing dress-up?”
Adri appeared in the doorway just as Cinder’s brain was informing her that “dress-up” was a game often played by children in which costumes or adult clothes are used to aid in the process of imagination…
Obviously, she thought, sending the message away.
“Well, Cinder?” said Adri, tightening her robe’s belt again and surveying the small room with a pinched face. “Garan told me you wouldn’t want for much. I hope this meets your expectations?”
She looked around again, at the bed, the dresser, the branches that would someday bloom in the neighbor’s yard. “Yes, thank you.”
Adri rubbed her hands together. “Good. I hope you’ll let me know if you need anything. We’re glad to share our home with you, knowing what you’ve been through.”
Cinder licked her lips, thinking to say thank you again, but then a small orange light flickered in her optobionics and she found herself frowning. This was something new and she had no idea what it meant.
Maybe it was a sign of a brain malfunction. Maybe this was a glitch.
“Come along, Peony,” said Adri, stepping back into the hall. “I could use some help in the kitchen.”
“But Mom, Cinder and I were going to—”
Scowling, Peony thrust the android arm into Cinder’s hand and followed after her mother.
Cinder held up the limb and shook it at their backs, making the lifeless fingers wave goodbye.
Six nights after she’d arrived at her new home, Cinder awoke on fire. She cried out, tumbling off the mattress and landing in a heap with a blanket wrapped like a tourniquet around her bionic leg. She lay gasping for a minute, rubbing her hands over her arms to try and smother the flames until she finally realized that they weren’t real.
A warning about escalating temperatures flashed in her gaze and she forced herself to lie still long enough to dismiss it from her vision. Her skin was clammy, beads of sweat dripping back into her hair. Even her metal limbs felt warm to the touch.
When her breathing was under control, she pulled herself up onto weak legs and hobbled to the window, thrusting it open and drinking in the winter air. The snow had started to melt, turning into slush in the daytime before hardening into glistening ice at night. Cinder stood for a moment, reveling in the frosty air on her skin and entranced by how a nearly full moon turned the world ghostly yellow. She tried to remember the nightmare, but her memory gave her only fire and, after a minute, the sensation of sandpaper in her mouth.
Shutting the window, she crept toward her bedroom door, careful not to trip on the bag of secondhand clothes Pearl had begrudgingly given to her the day before after her father had lectured her about charity.
She heard Adri’s voice before she reached the kitchen and paused, one hand balancing her on the wall as her body threatened to tip toward its heavier left side.