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Excerpt Feature: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

Excerpt Feature: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

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New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune invites you deep into the heart of a peculiar forest and on the extraordinary journey of a family assembled from spare parts.

“An enchanting tale of Pinocchio in the end times.” —P. Djèlí Clark

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?

Inspired by Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, and like Swiss Family Robinson meets Wall-EIn the Lives of Puppets is a masterful stand-alone fantasy adventure from the beloved author who brought you The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, on sale 4/25/23.


1

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Six-Ten-JQN Series Alpha was a long metal rectangle, five feet tall and two feet wide, and her old and worn tires had been replaced by toothed metal, not unlike a tank.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.

Rambo screamed.

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. “Okay,” 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.

It didn’t.

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—”

“Vic!”

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.”

Copyright © 2023 from TJ Klune

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