Serbian-American inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856. (158 years ago!) In real life, Tesla was an electrical genius in the early days of practical electrical experimentation. At the beginning of his career, he worked for Thomas Edison. He made big improvements to Edison’s system of delivering electricity to houses and businesses, but when Edison didn’t reward him enough for his work, Tesla quit and went into business for himself. Soon he and Edison became real-life enemies in the “War of Currents,” with Tesla promoting his alternating current (the kind we use in homes today) and Edison stumping for direct current, which was popular at the time. The argument got pretty nasty–Edison even electrocuted an elephant and invented the electric chair, all to try and prove that Tesla’s electrical system was more dangerous!
Tesla and Edison are enemies in The League of Seven too, but of course in my book history goes in a very different direction. Since “lektricity” is what feeds the Mangleborn, the giant monsters that slumber beneath the earth, electricity is a dangerous and forbidden science. Some electrical engineers, like Nikola Tesla, work for the Septemberist Society, whose mission includes keeping the practical uses of electricity a secret so the world isn’t destroyed by giant monsters again. Others, like Edison, would love to see those monsters rise…
In honor of Tesla’s birthday, here’s a short scene from The League of Seven, introducing my version of Nikola Tesla. He’s…a little odd.
“The power station is just through here,” Mr. Rivets said. But as he approached the other door, it ka-chunked, followed by a similar ka-chunk from the outside door—the unmistakable sounds of doors locking.
Hachi drew her dagger.
Something started to hum within the walls, like the sound of a distant steam engine. But different somehow. Archie didn’t recognize the sound, but it meant something to Fergus. He pushed himself up off the wall and frowned, listening to it.
“I know you’ve come for me like the rest!” a man’s voice cried through the gramophone horn on the wall, making them all jump. “You won’t get out of this room alive. I’ll leave you in there until you die, then go out at night and slip your dead bodies into the water, where you’ll be washed miles downstream before anyone finds you!”
“Well, that’s some welcome,” Fergus said.
“I thought you knew this person,” Hachi said to Archie and Mr. Rivets.
Archie shrugged. He barely remembered anything about this place.
“Mr. Tesla, I am Mr. Rivets, Tik Tok valet to Dalton and Agatha Dent, and personal tutor for their son, Archibald.”
Fergus and Hachi raised their eyebrows at him.
“Well? What did you think Archie stood for?” Archie said.
“If you will remember, sir,” Mr. Rivets continued, “we came here eight years ago when Mr. and Mrs. Dent used the Septemberist archives to identify an odd specimen that had washed up near Charles Town.”
“You could be impostors!” Tesla said through the speaker. “Yes. That’s it. Impostors!”
“Thirty days hath September,” Archie said, using the Society’s secret pass phrase. “Seven heroes we remember.”
“You’d still know the Septemberist code words if you were brainwashed!”
“If you’d just open the door, we could show you we’re not brainwashed,” Fergus said.
“Oh, very clever! Yes! I open the door, and you put one of those bug things on me and brainwash me like all the others,” Tesla said. “No thank you!”
“Wait, I think I remember you now,” Archie said. “You had these shiny silver discs with holes in the middle of them. From Atlantis, you said. You put them in a machine with lektric coils that glowed orange, but it melted them. So you just used the machine to make toast instead. I was little, but you showed me. We had strawberry jam on toast.”
The speaker was quiet for a moment.
“Of course you would know that,” Tesla said finally. “Just like you know the Septemberist password. You’re the boy who was here before, but you and your friends have those little bug things in your necks!”
“No, that’s why we’re here,” Archie said. “My parents, they have those bugs on them, and—”
“I’m not letting you in!” Tesla interrupted. “And you’re not getting out. Not without frying yourself. I may be the last Septemberist left, but I’m not going down without a fight!”
“He’s lost his mind,” Hachi said.
“Fried? What does he mean by that? Is he going to heat up the room?” Archie asked.
“Nae. Listen,” Fergus said. He was listening to that hum again. “We’re in a Franklin cage.”
“A what?” Archie asked.
“A who?” Hachi asked.
“Did someone just say ‘Franklin cage’?” Tesla said over the speaker.
Fergus put a hand out to the wall and touched it, but nothing happened. He nodded.
“Franklin was a Yankee inventor. He experimented with lektricity,” Fergus said. “Edison had some of his old papers. I saw them. Franklin was a genius.”
“You’ll remember Benjamin Franklin, sir,” Mr. Rivets told Archie. “A local printer and diplomat from Philadelphia who was instrumental in convincing the Iroquois to accept the Yankees into their confederacy after the Darkness fell. He was eventually recruited by the Septemberists, and worked in secret for them for decades.”
“He had this idea, Franklin did,” Fergus said. “You take a metal box, or a cage, or a can, doesn’t matter, long as it’s metal on the outside. You run lektricity to it, and the lektricity stays on the outside. Spreads around it, but not inside it, see?” He put his hand to the wall again. “No charge on the inside, but all around the outside is lektrified.” Fergus frowned as he thought. “But to generate the kind of lektricity that would fry us, that would take—”
“Who is that?” Tesla asked. “Who’s talking? How do you know so much about lektricity?”
“Let us in and we’ll tell you,” Hachi said.
“No. No tricks!” Tesla said. “I don’t care. I don’t. I’m going away now. I’m not listening to you anymore. La la la la la la la la.”
“He probably has his fingers in his ears,” Hachi said.
“I heard that!” Tesla said.
“I thought you said you weren’t listening anymore,” Hachi told him.
“La la la la la la la la,” Tesla said again.
Hachi flung her dagger at the door in frustration, and it lodged there with a twang.
“That’s helpful,” Archie said.
“Just letting off steam,” she told him, and she went to retrieve her knife.
“Nae, wait!” Fergus said, reaching for her. “Don’t touch that! If it penetrated the outer wall, it could—”
A white-hot bolt of lektricity leaped from the dagger to Fergus’s outstretched hand. Kazaaak! But Fergus wasn’t jolted or thrown across the room. Archie and Hachi stepped back in fear as lightning arced from the dagger to his hand in a constant stream. All over Fergus’s skin, the black lines danced and rearranged themselves.
“Fergus, what—?” Archie asked.
“I—I don’t know,” Fergus said. His startled face glowed in the lektric light. “But keep back. I should be dead. This should be killing me, but I don’t even feel it.”
Lektricity surged between the dagger and Fergus’s outstretched hand, more and more of it, until the humming sound outside the room died and the sparks stopped coming. Fergus staggered back and stared at his hand. The black lines on his skin were moving again, rearranging themselves.
“Your face and arms,” Archie told him. “The lines are moving there too.”
The door to the inside of the facility kachunked, and a tall, thin man with a metal cage on his head ran inside. He wore oversized rubber gloves and rubber boots, and metal foil stuck out of his sleeves and pant legs like he was wearing tin Long Johns.
“How did you do that?” Tesla demanded, his curiosity apparently overcoming his paranoia. “That was one hundred milliamperes! Where did it go? You should be dead!”
“I know. I think I—I think I absorbed it,” Fergus said. He tapped the ends of his thumb and forefinger together, and lektricity sparked between them.
“Moj bog,” Tesla muttered. He took a screwdriver out of his pocket and touched it to Fergus’s skin, but nothing happened. “No discharge! You’re nonconductive now. Come with me.”
Before any of them could protest, Tesla grabbed Fergus and pulled him inside. Tesla forgot he was wearing a cage on his head and banged into the door frame. He cursed in some Old World language and turned to them, embarrassed. “To keep the voices out of my head,” he whispered, tapping the cage. “So they can’t control me.”
Archie might have thought Tesla was crazy if he hadn’t heard voices in his head himself. The voice of a Mangleborn. JANDAL A HAAD, the Swarm Queen had said. Like she was speaking just to him. Like she was . . . calling his name.
Archie shook off the memory. Hachi was tapping at her dagger, seeing if it was going erupt in lightning again. It didn’t, and she plucked it from the wall and followed Archie into Atlantis.
Read more adventures of Archie, Hachi, Fergus, Mr. Rivets, and Nikola Tesla in The League of Seven, debuting August 19, 2014. And don’t forget, you can get a free prequel short story chapbook when you pre-order The League of Seven from my hometown indie, Malaprop’s Bookstore!