TJ Klune’s latest leads you deep into a fantastic forest where a man has raised a small family of robots. This standalone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door takes inspiration from Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, and is described as “Swiss Family Robinson meets Wall-E.”
In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots — fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe.
The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio–a past spent hunting humans.
When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming.
Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?
The cover is below, followed by an exclusive look at the first two chapters.
A tiny vacuum robot screamed as it spun in concentric circles, spindly arms that ended in pincers waving wildly in the air. “Oh my god, oh my god, we’re going to die. I will cease to exist, and there will be nothing but darkness!”
A much larger robot stood still next to the vacuum, watching it have a meltdown for the millionth time. This other robot did not have arms, legs, or feet. Instead, the former Medical Nurse Model Six-Ten-JQN Series Alpha was a long metal rectangle, five feet tall and two feet wide, and her old and worn tires had been replaced by toothed metal, not unlike a tank. Two metal hatches on either side of her base opened to reveal a dozen metal tentacles ending in various medical tools should the need to operate arise. A monitor on the front flashed a green frowning face. Nurse Registered Automaton to Care, Heal, Educate, and Drill (Nurse Ratched for short) was not impressed with the vacuum. In a flat, mechanical voice, she said, “If you were to die, I would play with your corpse. There is much I would be able to learn. I would drill you until there was nothing left.”
This — as Nurse Ratched had undoubtedly planned — set the vacuum off once more. “Oh no,” it whimpered. “Oh no, no, no, this will not do. Victor! Victor. Come back before I die and Nurse Ratched plays with my corpse! She’s going to drill me! You know how I feel about being drilled.”
Above them in the Scrap Yards, halfway up a pile of discarded metal at least twenty feet high, came the quiet sound of laughter. “I won’t let her do that, Rambo,” Victor Lawson said. He glanced down at them, hanging onto the pile of scrap via a pulley system he’d constructed with a harness around his waist. It wasn’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, but Vic had been doing this for years, and hadn’t fallen yet. Well, once, but the less said about that the better. The shriek he’d let out at the bone protruding wetly from his arm had been louder than any sound he’d made before. His father wasn’t happy about it, telling him that a twelve-year-old had no reason to be in the Scrap Yards. Victor had promised not to return. He’d gone back the next week. And now, at the age of twenty-one, he knew the Scrap Yards like the back of his hand.
Rambo didn’t seem to believe him. He squealed, pincers opening and closing, his circular body shaking as his all-terrain tires rolled over pieces of metal that had fallen from the scrap heap. Across the top, in faded markings that had never been clear, were the letter R and a circle that could have been an O or a lowercase a, followed by what was clearly an M (possibly) and a B before ending in another O or a. He’d found the little thing years before, repairing it himself with metal and care until the machine had come back to life, demanding to be allowed to clean — it needed to clean because if it didn’t, it had no purpose, it had nothing. It’d taken Vic a long time to calm the machine down, fiddling with its circuits until the vacuum had sighed in relief. It was a short-term fix. Rambo worried about most things, such as the dirt on the floor, the dirt on Vic’s hands, and death in all manner of ways.
Nurse Ratched, Vic’s first robot, had asked if she could kill the vacuum.
Vic said she could not. Nurse Ratched asked why.
Vic said it was because they didn’t kill their new friends.
“I would,” Nurse Ratched had said in that flat voice of hers. “I would kill him quite easily. Euthanasia does not have to be painful. But it can, if you want it to be.” She rode on her continuous track toward the vacuum, drill extended.
Five years later, not much had changed. Rambo was still anxious. Nurse Ratched still threatened to play with his corpse. Vic was used to it by now.
Vic squinted up at the top of the metal heap, his shoulder-length dark hair pulled back and tied off with a leather strap. He tested the weight of the rope. He wasn’t heavy, but he had to be careful, his father’s voice a constant in his head, even if he worried too much. After all, Victor was rail thin, Dad constantly after him to eat more, You’re too skinny, Victor, put more food in your mouth and chew, chew, chew.
The magnetic camming device seemed to be holding against the top of the heap. He brushed his forehead with the back of his gloved hand to keep the sweat from his eyes. Summer was on its way out, but it still held on with dying bursts of wet heat. “All right,” he muttered to himself. “Just a little higher. No time like the present. You need the part.” He looked down to test his foothold.
“If you fall and die, I will perform the autopsy,” Nurse Ratched called up to him. “The final autopsy report should be available within three to five business days, depending upon whether you are dismembered or not. But, as a courtesy, I can tell you that your death will most likely be caused by impact trauma.”
“Oh no,” Rambo moaned, his sensors flashing red. “Vic. Vic. Don’t get dismembered. You know I can’t clean up blood very well. It gets in my gears and mucks everything up!”
“Engaging Empathy Protocol,” Nurse Ratched said, the monitor switching to a smiley face, eyes and mouth black, the rest of the screen yellow. The hatch on her lower right side slid up, and one of her tentacle-like arms extended, patting the top of Rambo’s casing. “There, there. It is all right. I will clean up the blood and whatever other fluids come from his weak and fragile body. He will most likely void his bowels too.”
“He will?” Rambo whispered.
“Yes. The human sphincter is a muscle, and upon death, it relaxes, allowing waste to vacate the body in a spectacular fashion, especially if there is impact trauma.”
Vic shook his head. They were his best friends in all the world. He didn’t know what that said about him. Probably nothing good. But they were like him, in a way, even though he was flesh and blood and the others were wires and metal. Regardless of what they were made of, all had their wires crossed, or so Vic chose to believe.
He looked up again. Near the top of the scrap heap he could see what appeared to be a multi-layer PCB in good condition. Circuit boards were a rare find these days, and though he’d wanted to pull it out when he first saw it a few weeks before, he hadn’t dared. This particular scrap heap was one of the most hazardous and was already swaying as he climbed. He’d take his time, working out scrap around the circuit board, letting it fall to the ground. Such effort required patience. The alternative was death.
“Vic!” Rambo cried. “Don’t go. I love you. You’re going to make me an orphan!”
“I’m not going to die.” He took a deep breath before climbing slowly up the rope, squeezing and locking the carabiner at each stage. The thin muscles in his arms burned with the exertion.
The higher he got, the more the heap shifted. Bits of metal glinted in the sun as they fell around him, landing with a crash on the ground below. Rambo was deliriously distracted from his panic now that he had something to clean. Vic glanced down to see him picking up the fallen pieces of scrap and moving them to the base of the pile. He beeped happily, a noise that almost sounded like he was humming.
“Your existence is pointless,” Nurse Ratched told him.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Rambo said cheerfully as his sensors blinked blue and green. He dropped another piece of metal at the bottom before celebrating and spinning around.
It was near the top of the metal heap that Vic paused to rest, turning his head to look beyond the Scrap Yards. The woodlands stretched as far as he could see. It took him a moment to find the trees that held their home, the main fir rising above all others.
He leaned back as far as he dared to peer around the side of the heap. In the distance, smoke rose from a stack atop a great, lumbering machine. The machine was at least forty feet high, the crane on its back moving deftly between the piles of metal and debris as it lifted even more scrap from its hopper and dropped it in a never-ending cycle. Vic marked the location in his head, wondering if there was anything new being brought in worth salvaging.
The other Old Ones were farther away.
He was safe.
He looked back up at the circuit board. “I’m coming for you,” he told it.
It took him ten more minutes to come within reach of the circuit board. Stopping to make sure his footing was solid, he gave himself a moment to clear his head. He didn’t look down; heights didn’t bother him, not really, but it was easier to focus on the task at hand. Less vertigo that way.
Leaning back against the harness, he shook out his arms and hands. “OK,” he muttered. “I got this.” Reaching up toward the circuit board, he gritted his teeth as he gripped the edge gingerly. Vic tugged on it, hoping that something had happened since he’d last been here, and it’d wiggle loose with ease.
He dug around it, pulling out a chunk of metal that looked like it’d once belonged to a toaster. He looked inside to see if anything was salvageable. The interior looked rusted beyond repair. No good. He shouted a warning before dropping it. It crashed below him.
“You missed Rambo,” Nurse Ratched said. “Try harder next time.”
Vic startled when the circuit board shifted the next time he gripped it, his eyes widening. He pulled. It gave a little. He pulled harder, careful not to squeeze too tightly to avoid damaging the board. It looked intact. Dad was going to be happy. Well, he’d be pissed if he found out how Vic had gotten it, but what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
Vic worked the circuit board like a loose tooth, back and forth, back and forth. He was about to let it go and try to dig around it more when it popped free.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes.” He waved it down at the others. “I got it!”
“The joy I feel knows no bounds,” Nurse Ratched said.
“Huzzah.” Her screen changed to confetti falling around the words CONGRATULATIONS IT’S A GIRL.
“Vic?” Rambo said, sounding nervous.
“I can’t believe it,” Vic said. “It’s been weeks.” “Vic,” Rambo said again, voice rising.
“It doesn’t look damaged,” Vic said, turning it over in his hands. “It’s going to — ”
He looked down, annoyed, though trying to tamp it down. “What?”
“Run!” Rambo cried.
A horn blasted, deep and angry. It echoed around the Scrap Yards, the sound causing the metal heap to vibrate and shift.
Vic knew that sound.
He leaned over as far as he could.
An Old One rolled toward them, sirens blaring, the crane swinging back and forth. It crashed into other piles of scrap, metal scraping against metal, showers of sparks raining down. It did not slow. It did not stop. “INTRUDER,” it bellowed. “INTRUDER. INTRUDER. INTRUDER.”
Vic felt the blood drain from his face as he whispered, “Oh no.”
He shoved the circuit board into his satchel even as he squeezed the carabiner with his other hand. He dropped five feet in a second, jerking painfully when the carabiner hit a thick knot in the middle of the rope. He struggled against it, but it wouldn’t move any further.
“I suggest you get down,” Nurse Ratched said as she scooped up Rambo, rocks kicking up under her treads as she rolled away, dodging detritus raining down around them. Rambo squealed, sensors flashing red in his panic.
“I’m working on it!” Vic shouted after them, still trying to get the carabiner past the knot.
No use. It wouldn’t give.
The Old One’s horn blasted again. Vic grunted when something heavy bounced off his shoulder, sending him spinning away. His breath was knocked from his chest when he swung back into the trash heap with a jarring crash, the sound of metal crunching under the Old One’s massive tires getting closer and closer.
Managing to regain his footing, Vic looked up quickly, already mourning the loss of the camming devices. They were difficult to make, but he couldn’t do anything about that now. The Old One appeared around the side of the heap, lights flashing. Its crane swung toward the heap. Metal shrieked as the bucket slammed above him, causing the heap to shudder. The ropes snapped against his harness, pulling him up and then dropping him back down as the tower began to lean to the right.
In front of him, a large metal sheet that read voted best food truck shifted.
Without thinking, he reached for it.
The crane swung back around, gaining momentum.
The moment before impact, Vic pulled the metal sheet out with a harsh grunt. The bucket hit with a jarring crash, debris raining down around him as the pile tilted precariously to the left. Vic fell, the slack rope twisting around him. He spun in midair, sliding the metal underneath him, lying flat against it. Hot sparks flew up toward him, causing him to bury his face in his forearms. He thought he screamed, but couldn’t hear himself above the angry roar of the Old One and the collapsing tower.
He was six feet above the ground when the sheet hit an exposed rebar, sending him flying. He hit the ground roughly, tucking his arms and legs in as he rolled. He had a brief moment to be thankful for Rambo’s neurotic tendencies to clear the ground of debris. If he hadn’t, Vic might have been skewered on something he’d thrown down.
He landed on his back, blinking up at the sky. He had to move. When no serious pain rolled over him, he pushed himself to his feet in time to see the heap collapse completely. Vic ran, chest heaving as the Old One blared furiously behind him. Knowing the Old Ones couldn’t — or wouldn’t — leave the perimeters of the Scrap Yards, Nurse Ratched and Rambo waited for him at the edge, Rambo sitting on top of her, little arms waving frantically. Nurse Ratched’s screen had turned into a line of exclamation points.
“See?” he told them as they left the Old One behind. “Nothing to it.”
“Yes,” Nurse Ratched said. “Absolutely nothing to it. I would be impressed except I do not find idiocy impressive. If I did, I would flirt with you.”
He’d learned of flirting from Dad’s films. People smiling and blushing when they saw each other, doing things they might not normally do, all in the name of love.
He’d never had anyone to flirt with before. It sounded extraordinarily complicated. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
“I can do many things,” Nurse Ratched said, the exclamation points disappearing, being replaced by a face with a funny smile, wide eyes surrounded by long eyelashes. “Hey, big boy. You should put your finger in my socket.” The screen went black. “That was flirting. There is a difference.”
Vic grimaced as Rambo wheeled around him, arms waving. “They don’t do that in the films.”
“At least not in the ones you have seen. Did it work? Are you aroused?” The tiny lens above her screen blinked to life, a blue light scanning him up and down. “You don’t appear to be aroused. Your penis shows no signs of elevated blood flow that supports recreational sexual engagement.”
“I don’t have a penis,” Rambo said mournfully. Somewhere inside him, gears shifted and a little slot opened up at his base. He grunted, and a little pipe extended, dripping what looked like oil. “Now I do. Hurray for penises!”
“Would you put that away?” Vic asked. “We need to get home.” He looked up at the bruised sky. The sun was beginning to set. “It’s going to be dark soon.”
“And you’re scared of the dark,” Rambo said, pipe sliding back in, slot closing.
“I’m not scared of the — ”
“Fear is superfluous,” Nurse Ratched said, falling in behind Vic as he led the way through the forest. “I am not scared of anything.” She paused. “Except for birds who want to nest inside me and lay their eggs in my gears. Evil birds. I will kill them all.”
Vic pulled the circuit board from his satchel. It was still whole. Tracing his finger over its bumps and ridges, he whispered, “Worth it.”
By the time they reached home, the sky was bleeding violet, and the first stars were out. The sun settled near the horizon, the moon rising like a pale ghost. Rambo rolled ahead along the worn path, already calling out for Vic’s father. He should’ve expected this, seeing as how Rambo always wanted to share the moments where they’d almost been horribly murdered, and how lucky they were to escape with their lives. “No,” Vic said after him, cursing inwardly that he’d allowed himself to be distracted. “Don’t tell him about — ”
But Rambo ignored him, announcing quite loudly that he hadn’t been scared, but even if he was, that was all right. The lights were on in the ground house, meaning Dad was still tinkering down here with his record player. Rambo rolled through the open doorway and disappeared inside.
Vic looked toward the elevator near the biggest tree. He thought about escaping to his personal lab above but knew his father wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t at least try and explain himself.
“No,” Nurse Ratched said, rolling against him, pushing him toward the ground house. “You need to tell him the truth. I want to watch as you get scolded. It brings me something akin to joy to see you stare at the floor and give him flimsy excuses.”
“You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“I know,” she said. “I am a traitor. I feel terrible about it. I cannot wait.” She stopped. Her screen flashed a question mark. “Do you hear that?”
He glanced back at her. “Hear what?”
“I do not know. It sounds complex. It is coming from the ground house. I need to diagnose it.” She rode by him, flattening the grass on the forest floor, leaves crunching. He watched as she disappeared through the doorway.
He followed, cocking his head. He strained to hear what she had. At first, there was nothing. And then — His eyes widened. “No way.”
He jogged toward the ground house.
Electric lights burned inside, reflecting off glass jars filled with unused parts and unplanted seeds. The floor creaked under Vic’s weight with every step he took. He wound his way through the shelves and piles of books and electronics. A washing machine, though it was broken beyond repair. What his father called an icebox, though it never made any ice. Dad never liked to throw anything away, saying there was a use for everything even if it wasn’t readily apparent. Vic was the same way, which is why it frustrated him that his father didn’t like when they went hunting in the Scrap Yards. The ground house was filled with objects his father had salvaged, even if he hadn’t been back in quite a while. How was it any different when Vic did the same?
But he ignored it, all of it, because of the sounds that rolled over him, warm and sweet.
It was music.
But it wasn’t like the music boxes against the far walls. Those were monophonic, and though enchanting, they did not compare.
A voice unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, soft, sweet. Higher-pitched, and it took Vic a moment to realise why. A woman. Above the gentle plink of piano keys, a woman sang about the doggoned moon above, making her need someone to love. Entranced, he followed the voice.
Vic found Giovanni Lawson sitting in an old recliner, Rambo in his lap. His eyes were closed as he petted the vacuum. Rambo grumbled happily, sensors flashing slowly. Nurse Ratched sat next to them. On her screen, a line bounced in a circadian rhythm, keeping time with the beat from the song.
On top of the wooden work bench a record player lay open, a record spinning and skipping, the voice slightly warbled but still clear.
“It works,” Vic whispered in awe. “You fixed it.”
Dad didn’t open his eyes. He hummed under his breath be- fore saying, “I did. This is Beryl Davis singing. Such a lovely voice, don’t you think?”
Vic approached the work bench. He could hear the sound of a record turning against the needle. He bent over, examining the machine. It looked as it always had. He couldn’t see anything new. He itched to take it apart to see how its innards moved to create the sound he was hearing. “How did you fix it?”
“A little love,” Dad said. “A little time.” “Dad.”
He chuckled. “The hand crank. Wasn’t connected properly.” Vic blinked in surprise as he stood upright. “That’s it?” “That’s it. Simple, isn’t it? We were thinking too big, too grand. Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that can change everything when you least expect it.”
He turned around to see his father watching him. The skin of his face was wrinkled and soft, his bright eyes kind. His hair hung in white waves around his ears, his beard extending down to his chest. When Vic was younger, he’d asked why he looked nothing like his father. Dad was a barrel of a man, his chest thick and strong, his stomach sloping outward, fingers blunt. Vic didn’t have the presence his father had. As a boy, he’d been as thin as a whisper, sprouting up instead of out. He’d grown into himself the older he’d gotten, but he was still awkward, his movements clipped. His father’s skin was pale. His own was tanned, as if he’d been born in the sun and never left. His father’s eyes were blue, Vic’s brown, and in certain light, they looked black. They weren’t the same. They never had been.
But this man was his father. This man had raised him. This man who wasn’t a man at all.
Dad grimaced, turning away to rub at his chest.
Vic sighed, unreasonably irritated that Dad had tried to hide the gesture from him. Though an admonition threatened to burst from his mouth, he swallowed it back down. “I told you to let me take a look at it.”
“It is not fine,” Nurse Ratched said. “Either you let Victor look at you, or I will drill you.” To make her point, her drill whirred loudly. Across her screen, the words YOU WON’T FEEL A THING scrolled. “Perhaps we should proceed with the drilling regardless. It has been quite some time since I was able to drill anything.”
Dad set Rambo on the ground as the song ended and gave way to another. Vic could feel it down to his bones, and he wondered how he’d gone so long without hearing such a thing. It’d only been minutes, but he could no longer imagine a life without music like this. Those records had been an extraordinary find. He’d have to see if there were more.
“I’m fine as I am,” Rambo said nervously. “No one needs to drill or open me.”
“Anxious little thing,” Dad said fondly, nudging Rambo with his foot. “And we still don’t know why?”
Vic went to the work bench again, looking at his father’s tools that hung on a board. He selected the soldering iron, hoping against hope the fix wouldn’t be more complicated. “No. Wiring, I guess? A glitch in his software? Something. I don’t know.”
“I’m fine the way I am,” Rambo muttered.
“You are not,” Nurse Ratched said. “If you like, I can run a diagnostic scan to see if I can pinpoint your malfunction. Do you have insurance?”
“No,” Rambo said morosely. “I don’t have anything.” “You are fine the way you are,” Vic told him, shooting a glare at Nurse Ratched which she ignored completely. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just . . . unique. Like the rest of us.”
“That is called a white lie,” Nurse Ratched said, her screen filled with digital balloons. “White lies are often spoken to make one feel better. I will assist Victor in this process. Here is my white lie: you are a wonderful machine beloved by many.”
“Leave him alone,” Vic said as he knelt at his father’s feet. “Do you feel better?” Nurse Ratched asked.
“Yes,” Rambo said promptly. “Tell me more white lies.” “You are important. You have a purpose. The pipe you displayed earlier is bigger than any I have seen before.” “Yay!” Rambo said, arms raised. “I’m endowed!” Dad arched an eyebrow. “Do I want to know?”
Before Vic could respond, Nurse Ratched said, “Victor’s penis was flaccid even after I engaged my Flirting Protocol. Since I know what I am doing, it is not me, but him.”
“I regret ever fixing you both,” Vic muttered, motioning for Dad to lift his shirt.
“That was a white lie,” Nurse Ratched said. “Your pupils are dilated, your heart rate increased. You enjoy us. Thank you.” A thumbs-up burst onto her screen, with the words YOU DID A GOOD JOB! underneath.
Dad lifted his shirt. His skin was tight and smooth, without a belly button or nipples. On the right side of his chest, near the collarbone, was a small sheet of metal, the surface rough. When he was younger, he’d told Vic there’d been letters and numbers there, symbolizing his first designation. He’d scraped it off, refusing to be defined by it after he’d been given a name. He was more than what it claimed he was. For a long time, Vic had been upset he didn’t have a metal plate on his chest like his father.
Dad tapped his breastbone twice with his middle finger. From inside his chest came a beep, followed by a low hiss. The compartment of his chest cavity sank inward slightly before sliding off to the right.
There, in his father’s chest, was a heart. It wasn’t like the heart in Vic’s chest, one made of muscle that moved blood and oxygen throughout his body.
The heart in Giovanni’s chest was made of metal and wood and shaped not like the organ but like a symbol of a heart about the size of Vic’s fist. The chest cavity around it glowed a dull green, made of wires and circuitry. The heart itself was of Dad’s own making, replacing what had been a power core nearly drained beyond repair before he’d changed it out for the mechanical heart. The shell of the heart was partially constructed of a rare wood called bocote. Wood was typically nonconductive, but Dad had found a way to force enough electricity through it, though it required over fifteen thousand volts. To ensure conduction, in addition to the bocote, the heart had bits of silver-coated copper and brass in the shell, metal that glittered in the low light. Wires extended from the top of the shell, attaching to the parts in his chest that fed into the biochip in his head. In the exposed interior of the heart a handful of gears spun slowly. Above them, a small white strip, two centimeters wide and three centimeters tall.
Vic tapped the gears gently. His father jumped. “Sorry. Your hands are cold.”
The gears looked fine for now. One — the teeth wearing down — would need to be replaced soon, but Vic had already found the necessary parts and stored them in one of the jars. He leaned closer, nudging the heart slightly so he could see underneath it. “There,” he said, feeling extremely relieved. “One of the wires off the solenoid is coming loose. I can fix it.”
“I can do it,” Dad said.
Vic bit back a retort, opting for something softer. “Then you should have. I’ll take care of it so I know it gets done. Nurse Ratched.”
She stopped beside him, taking the plug for the soldering iron from him and inserting it into herself. She said, “Ooh. Yes. That is it.”
“Gross,” Rambo muttered. He nudged the side of Vic’s leg. “Is he going to die?”
“No,” Vic said, leaning forward, elbows resting on his dad’s legs. “He’s not going to die.”
“Because we’re going to be alive forever?”
“Impossible,” Nurse Ratched said. “Nothing is immortal. Eventually, our power cell will drain and we will perish because we will be unable to find a replacement.”
“But Vic will find one for us,” Rambo said.
“Victor is human,” Nurse Ratched said. “He will die long before us. He is soft and spongy. Perhaps it will be cancer, either rectal or bone. Or the plague if he gets bitten by a rat. Or he will get squashed by an Old One like he almost was today.” Her screen blinked with the word OOPS.
“Ah,” Dad said. “Is that what Rambo was shouting about before he heard the music?”
Vic sighed as he leaned forward, the tip of the soldering iron hot and red. “It was nothing.”
“That was a white lie,” Rambo said, sounding proud of himself.
Victor groaned as he pressed the soldering iron against the wire connecting the solenoid. Dad grunted, but otherwise stayed still. “It wasn’t even close. I knew what I was doing.”
“The expression on your face when the metal heap collapsed suggested otherwise,” Nurse Ratched said. “Would you like to view the reenactment I created right this second?”
Vic pulled the soldering iron away from the solenoid as he looked back. On her screen, an eight-bit version of Vic appeared atop a tower of metal. A word bubble sprang from his mouth, filling with OH NO I AM STUPID AND ABOUT TO DIE. The little character fell to the ground with a bloody smack, his eyes turning to X’s.
“Womp womp,” Nurse Ratched said as the screen darkened. “That is exactly what happened. Please do not hold your applause. I need validation.”
“You fell?” Dad asked, eyes narrowing.
Vic went back to the soldering. “Only a little bit.”
An odd note filled his father’s voice. “Did you get hurt? Cuts, scrapes? Did you bleed?”
“Why?” Vic asked. “You need more?” The heart — while a marvel of engineering unlike anything else that had been created — sometimes needed more than metal or wiring to function: a drop of blood, pressed against the white strip above the gears. It did not happen often — at most, once a year, but Nurse Ratched never failed to remind them that according to lore, a creature known as a vampire subsisted on the same thing. The last time had been four months before, when Dad had started acting more robotic, more like a machine.
Dad said, “Victor.”
“Not even nicked,” Vic assured him.
Dad nodded, obviously relieved. “Good. And the Old Ones?”
Vic shrugged. “You know how it is. They forget I even exist as soon as I leave the Scrap Yards. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Dad sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t go there. I told you — ” “Should have thought of that before you built this place so close to one. That’s on you. Not me.”
“Cheeky git,” Dad said. “Anything worth finding?” “Multi-layer PCB. Looks mostly intact too.”
Dad whistled lowly. “That’s rare.” He grimaced again as the wire fused back with the solenoid. Vic was careful with the closeness to the heart. It was a fragile thing. He made sure the wire had cooled enough so it wouldn’t burn the wood before setting it back gently where it belonged.
“See?” Vic said. “Nothing to it. You should have let me take care of that a long time ago.”
“Noted,” Dad said. He tapped against his breastbone once more, and the hatch slid closed. The seams filled. Vic rose to his feet as Dad dropped his shirt back down. “I need you to be careful, though. You can’t take chances that put you in danger.” Vic sighed as he went back to the work bench. Beryl Davis was singing in a crackly voice about what a fool she used to be. “I can take care of myself.” It was a conversation they’d had time and time again. He doubted it would be the last. He held onto the soldering iron, waiting for it to cool.
“You can,” Dad agreed quietly. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not breakable. If the Old Ones got ahold of you — ”
“They won’t. I’m quicker than they are. Smarter too. They’re machines.”
“As am I.”
Vic winced. He hadn’t meant it like that. He sometimes spoke without thinking things through, though he was trying to get better at it. “You know what I mean. They’re not — they have their programming. They’re guided by it, and can’t leave the Scrap Yards.”
“They’re still dangerous, Victor. And the sooner you realise that, the better off you’ll be.”
Vic ground his teeth together, calming himself by breathing in through his nose and out his mouth. “I know that. But if I hadn’t gone to the Scrap Yards, I never would have found Nurse Ratched or Rambo. We wouldn’t have half the stuff we have now. You would have run out of crap to tinker with a hell of a long time ago.” He nodded toward the spinning record. “And we wouldn’t be hearing this.”
Dad didn’t reply.
Vic slumped, struggling to find the words to get his point across without sounding petulant. “You know I’m right. I stay in the forest. I don’t go beyond the boundaries, and I’ve never pushed. I know you have your reasons, and that it’s not safe to cross the borders. I listen to you. I do. Which is why you should listen to me when I say I don’t need — want more than what I have.” He waited to see if Nurse Ratched would call him out for it. He wasn’t lying, not exactly, more in a grey area, skirting the edges of truth though he didn’t necessarily mean to.
She didn’t say a word.
His father did. “At least not yet.”
He turned around, his father looking as old as Vic had ever seen him. He felt like he was missing something. “What?”
Dad smiled tightly. “I don’t expect you to want to stay here forever. It’d be selfish of me to think otherwise. You say you’re happy. I believe you. But happiness isn’t something that can be sustained continuously, not without something to keep the fire burning.” In moments when Dad spoke like this, about what else is out there, Vic wondered about the people who had left him behind as an infant. What they had been like. Looked like. Did they laugh? Did they like music and tinkering for hours? Were they smart? Kind? What had made them trust Giovanni, a stranger in the middle of the woods, and who had been after them? Logic — the cold, brutal logic of a machine — dictated they were dead. They’d have returned by now if able to do so. They hadn’t.
He knew the woods. He knew his friends, their home. Giovanni, his father, the man to whom he wanted to prove that needing and wanting were two different things. Though he sometimes pushed against the perceived boundaries Dad had placed around him, their existence brought him a level of comfort. The stories Dad had told him — stories of cities made of metal and glass, and the humans therein. He’d read every book Dad had brought to this place — more than once — old stories of kings and queens in castles, of adventures on the high seas in great ships with flags billowing in the salty air, of people going to the stars and getting lost in the vast expanse of the universe. They were ghosts, but he did not feel haunted by them. The world beyond the forest was an unknowable thing, and though curiosity tugged at him every now and then, Vic- tor was stronger than it was. He had a home, a purpose, a lab all his own, and friends that loved him for who he was, not what he wasn’t. Loneliness wasn’t a concept he understood, not really, not like his father had when he’d first come to the forest. He, like Dad, was an inventor. If he needed someone — something — new to talk to, all he had to do was make it. He had the parts. He’d done it with Nurse Ratched, and then with Rambo. He could do it again, if need be. Some of the old books told stories of people yearning for more and setting off to find it and themselves. Vic always thought they were silly that way. He never wanted to go far from home.
He said, “You trust me.” “I do.”
“Then trust me to know what’s right for myself.” He moved until he stood above his father. Vic reached down, squeezing Dad’s shoulder.
Dad put his hand on top of Vic’s. “You’re a good boy. A bit foolish, perhaps, but a good boy nonetheless.”
“Learned it from you,” Vic said. “I’m also good,” Rambo said.
“Unbearably so,” Nurse Ratched said. “Though you seem to be suffering from an intense anxiety disorder. But that is fine. We are all unique. Victor is asexual. Giovanni is old. And I have sociopathic tendencies that manifest themselves in dangerous situations.”
“Hurray!” Rambo squealed. “We all have things!” Giovanni smiled as he shook his head. “What a strange existence we find ourselves in. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
The robots stayed with Dad, listening as Beryl Davis sang about love and loss. Vic left them behind in the ground house, looking down at the circuit board as he walked toward the elevator. He flipped the board over. The bottom left corner had a hairline crack in it, but that was an easy fix.
He stepped onto the wooden lift. The gate closed behind him as he pressed a button on one of the struts. Sodium arc lights lit up above him as the elevator rose from the forest floor to a midpoint below the canopy. The gate swung open, and Vic stepped off.
The ground house was just the beginning.
His father, in his infinite wisdom, had built a tree house of sorts, though far grander and more complex than any Vic had ever read about; even more spectacular than ones in books like The Swiss Family Robinson. Six massive trees grew in a vague circle, and each were connected by wooden rope bridges. In the tree to Vic’s left was his father’s lab, the largest of the dwellings built around the king of the forest. The structure on the second tree was Dad’s living quarters, stuffed to the gills with more scraps and tools and books. The highest building in the third tree was a makeshift kitchen, though Vic was the only one who used it. Once a sunroom, it now had a working electric stove and an old table set and chairs covered in carvings of birds and flowers and leaves. In one corner sat a large metal freezer that kept meat Vic had hunted from spoiling. Attached to the kitchen were facilities, a shower with rainwater that never got hot enough, and a toilet that Nurse Ratched was far too interested in, especially when she inquired as to the consistency of Vic’s bowel movements. He’d tried to explain to her that some things were meant to be private. “So you say,” she’d told him. “But then you will come to me leaking saltwater from your ducts after you have found blood in your stool, and where will you be then?”
He hadn’t known how to answer that.
The fifth tree held Vic’s own lab, smaller than his father’s, though no less extraordinary. The final tree, to the right of the elevator, held Vic’s room. One of his first memories had been his father building it while Vic watched, handing over what- ever tools Dad had asked for. He remembered being excited the first night he got to stay there on his own, though he couldn’t find the words to say as much. He’d planned on staying up as late as he could, especially since Dad wouldn’t be able to tell him to go to sleep. He’d lasted five minutes before he made his way back to Dad’s room, crawling into bed with him. Later, much later when he was older and perhaps a little wiser, he’d asked his father why he had a bed when he didn’t sleep like Vic did. Dad had said it made him feel more human.
Vic shook his head as he crossed the bridge to his room, thoughts tumbling end over end, though there was an order to the chaos. Pushing open the door, he stepped inside, closing it behind him.
Going to the room’s only window, he looked down at the ground house. Dad had built a section of skylights surrounded by solar panels for power. But the ground house was the only building with skylights, and below, he could see Dad in his chair, Nurse Ratched poking Rambo with one of her tentacles. He left them to it, stepping away from the window.
In the centre of the room was a tree trunk with knobby protrusions that had once been branches. Beyond the tree trunk in the right corner, a wooden bedframe with a lumpy, worn mattress. On the walls hung retired tools that no longer functioned; Vic was unable to bring himself to throw them away. It was a trait Vic had learned from his father, the idea of junking something rankling them both. What was broken could someday be repaired if need be, and if they had the right parts.
He lifted his shirt above his head. He frowned when he saw the hem had a small tear in it. He’d have to have Nurse Ratched sew it up again. The fabric was thinning, but it wasn’t quite yet ready for the rag pile. He folded it, setting it on the small dresser near the bed.
Flipping the circuit board once more, he sank to his knees before lying flat on his stomach, looking under the bed. There, in a dark and dusty corner, sat a metal box, a perfect cube. Pulling it out with a grunt, Vic sat back up looking toward the window as he heard the sound of music still playing in the ground house below.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to know what he had hidden inside, at least not yet. He hadn’t been ready to put it to use. But now that he had the circuit board, maybe it’d finally work.
He punched a code into the numeric keypad on top of the box, each press of the key causing a number to pop up on the display. The box beeped three times. The lock clicked. He opened the lid.
Inside, resting on an old cut of cloth he’d found amongst his father’s collection, sat a mechanical heart.
It wasn’t much like the one in Dad’s chest. That heart had been constructed by a master craftsman in his prime. Perfectly designed, but even machines wore down after years of use. Dad’s heart was old. It wouldn’t last forever. One day, the strain would become too much, and the heart would fail.
This new heart — crude and sophomoric and indescribably human — was a contingency plan. Just in case. He’d started building it when he was fifteen years old. He’d had no idea what he was doing.
Vic had made mistakes in the construction. The wood he first used — oak — had cracked and split. It wasn’t until he got his hands on some bubinga wood from the Scrap Yards that he’d found the perfect conductor. Inlaid in the wood was nickel- coated copper. Not as good as the silver-coated, but it’d do in a pinch, replaceable if need be.
The shape of the heart wasn’t exact. The point at the bottom had chipped off, and Vic had been forced to sand it down. Still, the gears in the interior of the heart were without a single fleck of rust. He turned the largest gear in the middle, marveling how it caused the five other, smaller gears to turn in tandem. The synchronicity of it was profound. The clack of the teeth sounded better than any music coming from a record player. The music of the gears was life.
He set the board carefully next to the heart before closing the lid. The display beeped once more as the box locked. He pushed it back under the bed to the far corner. Even Rambo wouldn’t find it, given that he was scared of the dark. It would go unnoticed until it was time for Vic to present it to his father.
He stood, knees popping. He scratched his bare stomach. He needed to eat before he slept. Shower too. As he walked across the rope bridge, he remembered the Old Ones dropping new scrap in the yard. Tomorrow, or the day after. He’d see if there was anything useful. Who knows, he told himself as the rope bridge swayed under his feet.
Excerpt from In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune reprinted with permission from Macmillan.
In the Lives of Puppets is available for preorder now. It will release in April 2023.
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