“Has anyone seen Tesla’s head?” Hiroko asked.
Nick Holt turned and stared at her in surprise.
“It’s not here?” he asked Hiroko.
“Uncle Newt had it just a minute ago.”
Nick’s uncle Newt was hunched over Tesla’s hands, which lay palms up on the portable work bench in front of him.
“I did?” he said.
“Yeah. You had it tucked under your arm when you went to get a soda.” It was Tesla Holt, Nick’s twin sister, who answered this time. She said the words with her mouth, which was on her face, which was on her head. Which was attached to her neck.
Her arms still had hands on them, too.
Which meant it was the other Tesla in the room who was missing hands and a head. The animatronic Tesla, made to look like famous inventor Nikola Tesla. Of course, lacking his head and hands, he didn’t look much like Nikola Tesla at the moment.
“Uh-oh,” said Nick, whose full name was Nikola Copernicus Holt.
He and his twin sister, Tesla, each shared part of Nikola Tesla’s name thanks to a family tradition handed down to their father, Albert Einstein Holt, from his father, Thomas Edison Holt.
“Why uh-oh?” asked Uncle Newt, a.k.a. Newton Galileo Holt.
Nick and Tesla didn’t answer their uncle’s question. They were already bolting for the nearest exit.
They had a pretty good idea where animatronic Nikola Tesla’s head had ended up—and why it would be a really good idea to retrieve it as soon as possible.
“Do you realize,” Nick gasped to his sister as the two of them dashed toward the far end of the Hall of Science, “that we weren’t even supposed to be here today?” They passed Marie Curie sitting behind the wheel of one of the field hospital X-ray trucks she created to help wounded soldiers during World War I. “Uncle Newt and Hiroko finished their work two days ago.”
Which was true. Their uncle and his kinda-sorta girlfriend Hiroko Sakurai were both robotics experts, and they’d been hired to save the exhibition after delays and malfunctions resulted in the firing of the original designer. The day before yesterday it seemed as though the job was all wrapped up.
“Well,” Tesla said to her brother, “who did you expect the museum director to call this morning when she found out that Nikola Tesla’s head was loose?” The pair slowed a bit to loop around René Descartes, who was lying in bed looking up at the fly that would inspire him to create the Cartesian coordinate system. “Plus, Charles Darwin had fallen over and crushed that flock of blue-footed boobies.” She meant models of blue-footed boobies . . . blue-footed boobies being a species of seabird native to the South Pacific. “I mean, tonight’s the museum’s grand reopening!” Nick and Tesla skidded into a right turn past Percy Spencer, who was staring in wonderment at a glob of gooey chocolate, the first in the world to be melted by microwaves.
These were animatronic versions of famous scientists—manikins, basically, that were silent and motionless at the moment. But this very night they would move and speak thanks to computer-controlled mechanisms built inside them. Because tonight was the grand reopening of the Northern California Museum of Science, Industry, and Technology, which had been christened with a brand-new name: The X-Treme Learnasium. And the museum’s centerpiece would be the Hall of Genius, where visitors could see and hear lifelike animatronic recreations of history’s greatest thinkers.
Assuming the machines actually worked.
“I was hoping we’d be able to help,” Nick answered glumly. Up ahead was Albert Einstein, posed in front of a chalkboard and writing his famous equation E = mc2. Nick and Tesla both loved science and building things, but the animatronics were far too complex for them to work on. “All we’ve been able to do so far,” Nick continued as they rounded the Einstein display, “is sweep up booby feathers.”
The unmarked rear exit of the Hall of Science was hidden behind Einstein’s chalkboard. The duo pushed open the door and burst through. “We are helping,” Tesla told Nick. “We’re going to rescue somebody from a heart attack.”
On the other side of the doorway Nick and Tesla found themselves in the bright, white-walled, maze-like corridors that connected the exhibit galleries with the museum’s offices, workshops, and storage rooms.
Tesla turned left, sprinted a few steps, and then suddenly spun on her heel and headed in the opposite direction.
“This way!” she said.
“Umm . . . ,” Nick replied as he followed her.
A scream echoed down the hall from somewhere behind them.
“You were right the first time,” Nick said.
Tesla whirled around again.
“Okay, then,” she said. “This way!”
A few seconds later, after a right turn, a left turn, and a quick turnaround at a dead end, Nick and Tesla finally made it to their destination: the museum’s small and cramped staff lunch room. There was just one table, and one counter, and one microwave, and one refrigerator.
And one woman, who was standing in front of the open fridge and staring down at something nestled between a six-pack of soda cans and some Tupperware.
The woman turned. “Nikola Tesla’s head,” she growled. “In the fridge, next to my tarragon chicken salad.”
“Wow, impressive! You recognized him!” Nick said, smiling feebly.
He didn’t get a smile in return, feeble or otherwise. Which didn’t come as a surprise.
The woman was Ellen Wharton-Wheeler, the museum’s chief curator. When Nick and Tesla met her briefly earlier that morning, her only response to Uncle Newt’s introduction had been a clipped “This isn’t an amusement park, no matter what certain people seem to think.”
“She’s not a fan of the Hall of Genius,” Hiroko had whispered as the woman stomped off.
“She doesn’t seem like a fan of people,” Nick had whispered back.
Now Ellen Wharton-Wheeler was frowning at Nick and Tesla as though they didn’t even qualify as people. She seemed to consider them more like cockroaches—nasty little intruders sullying her pristine and perfect world.
“Is this some kind of practical joke?” she snapped at the kids. She was a tall, husky, imposing woman.
And now she was holding the phony head of Nikola
Tesla as if she was about to pelt Nick and Tesla with it, dodgeball-style.
“Oh, no!” Nick replied. “It was just an accident!”
“Our uncle had it with him when he came to get a soda out of the refrigerator,” Tesla added. “And . . . well . . . he’s really forgetful. Last week he—” Tesla was about to describe the time Uncle Newt absentmindedly swapped a container of ice cream for a beaker of sulfuric acid, resulting in a freezer full of half-dissolved cardboard and liquefied Hot Pockets.
But before she could, two boys came charging into the room. One was short and slim, the other tall and beefy.
“Has it started? Has it started?” asked the bigger one. It was Nick and Tesla’s friend Silas.
The smaller of the two boys—their friend De-Marco—pointed at the head in Wharton-Wheeler’s hands.
“Whoa! You were right, Silas! They already had to kill one!”
“I told you it was just a matter of time,” Silas replied. Then he peered anxiously over his shoulder. “Are there more?”
“What is he talking about?” Wharton-Wheeler asked. She directed the question at Nick and Tesla, as if they’d suddenly been upgraded. Maybe they were cockroaches, but at least they weren’t crazy.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. This is all just a big misunderstanding,” Nick said because he really didn’t want to explain what Silas and DeMarco were talking about.
All day, Silas had been insisting that the animatronic figures in the Hall of Genius were robots.
Which meant that sooner or later, he believed, they’d do what robots inevitably do: rise up, destroy their human masters, and take over the world.
Silas read a lot of comic books. In fact, his father owned a comic-book store.
“If you’ll just give us the head,” Tesla said, “we’ll get out of your hair.”
Wharton-Wheeler squinted as if trying to decide whether they were pulling a prank. But after ten seconds or so, she seemed to decide she didn’t care.
She tossed Nikola Tesla’s head across the room.
“Oooh, yikes! Fragile!” Nick squeaked.
Fortunately, she was throwing the head into the outstretched arms of Tesla Holt, where it landed safe and sound.
“Go on,” Wharton-Wheeler said, “take that back to your uncle. At least Nikola Tesla will have a good head on his shoulders, even if no one else around here does.”
“What do you have against our uncle?” Tesla asked her.
It was then that the curator’s cold expression warmed, if just the teeniest bit. She still looked frosty, though.
“I don’t have anything against your uncle,” she said. “I wouldn’t even have anything against what he’s doing . . . if he were doing it at a county fair.
That’s a funhouse he’s working on. What used to be a serious, respectable museum is being turned into a tacky tourist trap, and I for one am not going to stand silently by while a once-great institution is—”
As she spoke the volume of her voice had been rising, rising, rising, but she cut herself off just before reaching shriek levels. Then she took a deep breath and patted down her short graying hair, even though it wasn’t mussed.
“Oh, well,” she continued, calmly. “At least my new exhibit is ready on time. Which means I don’t have to sit here eating chicken salad if I don’t want to. And suddenly, I don’t want to. I’m going out for lunch.”
She closed the refrigerator and started strutting so briskly toward the door that Silas and DeMarco had to jump out of the way or risk being bowled over.
“Wow, lady,” DeMarco said once she was gone. “Tell us what you really think.”
Silas shook his head. “How could anyone hate robots that much? They’re probably gonna destroy the human race and all, but they’re still cool.”
“Where have you two been?” Nick asked his friends. “You went to the bathroom half an hour ago.”
DeMarco and Silas answered at the same time:
“We got lost we were exploring!”
Nick assumed they were both telling the truth—they probably got lost and then used that as an excuse to poke around. Silas and DeMarco weren’t as interested in science and gadgetry as Nick and Tesla were. They were more interested in finding innovative new uses for firecrackers and restaging ill-advised stunts they’d seen on YouTube. The two of them had only tagged along to the museum because DeMarco’s little sisters were making him miserable and Silas wanted a front-row seat for the beginning of what he called “Robo-geddon.” After a couple hours in the Hall of Genius with no robot rebellion to battle, the two boys had grown very, very bored.
“Well, don’t go wandering off again,” Nick lectured them. “Uncle Newt may have gotten permission for us to hang with him today, but certain people probably wouldn’t mind having us thrown out.”
“Oh? Like who?” asked Silas.
Nick jerked a thumb at the door. “Uh, like maybe the woman who was just ranting about Uncle
“Oh, yeah,” said Silas. “Her.”
“Come on,” Tesla said, starting toward the hall. “We’ve gotta get this head back to the Hall of Genius.”
She stepped out into the corridor and took a quick left.
“This way,” she said.
“Umm . . . ,” said Nick.
After a few more steps, Tesla turned around.
“Right,” she said. “This way.”
They continued for a bit and then Tesla led the boys around a corner, nearly walking right into another person.
“Whoa!” she blurted out, stopping suddenly in her tracks. She was hugging the Tesla head tightly so that it wouldn’t drop. Her sudden stop caused
Nick to nearly collide with her, which in turn caused DeMarco to nearly collide with Nick. Silas had been trailing farther behind, half-expecting they’d all have to change direction again, so he was in no danger of colliding with anyone.
When all the kids had regained their footing, they found themselves facing a squat, dark-haired, broad-chested man wearing a loose-fitting purple muscle shirt and acid-washed jeans. His arms and chest bulged with veiny muscles, which were so huge he looked like an overinflated balloon animal.
The museum, or at least the exhibition space, was mostly deserted while final preparations were being made for the reopening, so the kids had seen only a few people on the premises. None of them had looked anything like this guy.
The stranger gaped in disbelief at the head in Tesla’s hands, but only for a second. His confused expression quickly changed to one of glee.
“All right, punks,” he snarled through a barely suppressed smirk. “Drop the head, and nobody gets hurt!”