Beside a sulphurous pool of bubbling mud, in a small damp cave hidden deep beneath the weight of Mount Hoffman, Joseph Foehammer stared at the culmination of his life’s work. Ten feet away, propped against the far wall of the steam-filled cavern, Martin Malus slowly regained his senses. It was a painful and gradual return to conscious awareness. His head ached with a deep throbbing pain. An intense nausea kept him off balance; he felt as though at any moment he might vomit. The image of Falun’s sheriff lying dead on the bridge was never far from his thoughts. He tried to rub his eyes but he found he could not move his arms.
“Try not to struggle so, my sweets,” the vile Dunsany, Nefertiti, whispered in his ear. “I bound your hands behind your back.”
“Nefertiti, stop teasing the boy,” Joseph said, shifting his gaze from the curious pool to the young squire.
Malus tried to process the dramatic changes to Joseph’s appearance. In the seven months since they had last faced each other Joseph had become old and fragile. His skin seemed tight, almost wax like; it appeared to cling to every bone, giving his face a somewhat skeletal appearance. His clothes hung loose, oversized and disheveled,
“My body is failing me,” said Joseph, quietly acknowledging the obvious. “It will not leave this mountain.”
“Did you tie me here to watch you die?” Malus said without compassion.
“You know of our relationship I take it,” Joseph stated.
“Since last summer.” Malus replied. He glanced at Nefertiti. “Tell her to reach into my vest pocket. I have something of yours.”
Joseph nodded to Nefertiti who practically purred as she slipped long grey fingers into the pocket of Malus’s vest, retrieving a silver flint lighter engraved with the name Joseph Foehammer. She then crossed the cave and handed it to the dying man.
“Yet, despite knowing that you still tied me to a rail in that ship of Dejah Thoris’s, stole my medicine and sent me to the centre of the earth!” Joseph oozed scorn with every word. “All without any effort to save your old grandfather.”
“I saw nothing worth saving.” Malus sneered.
Joseph turned the lighter over on his hands several times. “A wedding gift given me by your grandmother fifty-six years ago,” he looked up at Malus suddenly, “Did you know her?”
“I did not.” replied Malus. “She died when my father was young, leaving him to be raised by the church.”
A look flashed across Joseph’s face that was hard to decipher. He stared at Malus for such a long time the squire began to think the old man had fallen asleep and forgotten to close his eyes. Finally, Joseph took a deep breath and appeared to recover his senses.
“Do you know what that is?” Joseph pointed to a bubbling pool next to which he sat.
“A puddle of mud,” Malus shrugged. “So what? I sat in one just like it yesterday.”
“Not just like it.” Joseph smiled wryly until a coughing fit wiped the smile from his face. It was a particularly violent fit lasting several minutes.
“Tell me, when have you ever seen mud that could do this?” Joseph said once he had recovered sufficiently to speak once more. He pulled a deep blue linen handkerchief from his pocket and lowered it until it barely touched the surface of the pool. Spreading rapidly from the point of contact, as if the dye were running from the linen, the mud changed colour to a matching shade of indigo, all the while continuing to bubble and froth.
“Or this…” said Joseph. He returned the handkerchief to his pocket then quickly dipped his hand into the mud. Yet when he removed his hand and held it aloft for Malus to see, it was perfectly clean, no trace of mud, blue or otherwise, adhered to his skin. But even more unsettling was the form of a hand, blue and unnatural, reaching from the mud, rising above the surface no further than the wrist. It remained there unmoving for several seconds before dissolving back into the sludge.
“This pool percolates far more than simply mountain minerals and organic compounds.” Joseph explained as the blue hue gradually returned to its natural shade of brown. “It is teeming with tiny creatures too small to be seen by the unaided eye.”
Though he had been seated, Joseph suddenly swayed unsteadily. He lay back into a reclining position, propped against the natural curve of the cave’s wall.
“Are you familiar with the work of Christian Ehrenberg?”
Malus shrugged but did not answer.
“What are you doing with your life, boy?” Joseph suddenly barked. “You should be in school sharpening your mind yet you waste your time running errands for a delusional barkeep and his moll!” Joseph began to cough once more though it was a shorter attack than the previous.
“With my blood in your veins,” Joseph continued, “you can have nothing short of a brilliant mind. Knowledge and the wisdom to employ it properly is an essential component to power.”
“What of this Ehrenberg?” Malus questioned impatiently.
“When I was your age I worked alongside Dr. Ehrenberg under the guidance Brother Pizarro. Dr. Ehrenberg eventually had a falling out with both Pizarro and I. He was a weak man and did not appreciate the full potential of his work. It was not long before I tired of his moral superiority. In the end I was glad to be rid of him. But he made some brilliant discoveries. Among them this.” Joseph pointed to the bubbling pool of mud.
“That pool is home to a rare and unique species of radiolarians.” Joseph explained. “Highly adaptable microscopic organisms that have thrived in the earth’s oceans since the dawn of life. Yet here we are high in the mountains of the north. How do you suppose this could happen.”
“You think I am a fool?” Malus jabbed, in a ploy to keep Joseph talking so he could learn more. “I am aware of continental drift and of how the earth can make mountains where once was a sea floor.”
“Do I think you are a fool?” Joseph sneered with equal intensity. “I don’t believe I know you well enough to pass that judgment. I merely wish to point out that this isolated species, these radiolarians, have an uncanny ability to replicate anything – albeit temporarily.”
“So what,” Malus parried once again. “It is a fancy parlour trick nothing more.”
“You may not be a fool – but you lack imagination.” said Joseph. “In my lab back in Clockhaven I have built a tank, and perfected a preserving solution that is able to stabilize any transformation these radiolarians undergo. In my journal back in the Dunsany it is all meticulously detailed.” Joseph took a breath. “I believe that by combining these radiolarians with information – something vital from that you wish to copy, I can recreate an identical copy of any living thing.”
Your illness has affected your wits, old man” Malus scoffed. “I have never heard anything so foolish.”
“Says the uneducated bartender to the man of science!” Joseph shouted, his anger clearly rising. “I have worked on this for a half a century. It will work!”
“Okay, so what if it does?” Malus feinted, using Joseph’s scorn to draw him in closer. “You can make an apple in a vat – good for you.”
“Again you show a lack of imagination.” said Joseph. “I intend to recreate myself.”
“A sick old man?” Malus laughed. “Why bother wasting an experiment?”
“The vial you stole from me last summer, that Nefertiti so kindly recovered, is the key.” explained Joseph. “By combining my cure-all with the radiolarians and a few drops of my own blood I could be regenerated back in Clockhaven – old, yes I grant you that, but free of disease.”
Malus pursed his lips, ready for his attack. “You are insane!”
“That does not negate my brilliance.” Joseph shot back. “I want you to do it for me.”
Malus felt his argument being disarmed. “Do what?”
“Take this vial and the remaining solution it contains, mix it with my blood and these radiolarians. Then bring it all back to Clockhaven and revive me,” Joseph spoke with a quiet intensity. “As vital as I was before this illness consumed me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“You may have noticed that I am short tempered and quick to anger, and do you know why?. Because I am surrounded by disorder. We are the elite, you and I. You know it to be true. You have always known it to be true. You were born for greatness and fate has maliciously robbed you of your destiny.
“The world has descended into chaos. The rabble now rule. But we can restore order. You are destined to lead and by my side you shall. Mark my words, people will tremble when they hear the name Foehammer.