Asher's Dilemma

By: Coleen Kwan

“Argh!” he yowled. Some invisible force pushed his arm out the window and pointed it squarely at his workshop. He tried to let go of the stalking compass, but the brass fob chain it was attached to wrapped itself around his forearm and squeezed his flesh. Asher blinked in disbelief. It was almost as if the stalking compass wanted him to go in that direction. Complete poppycock, of course, but strange things had been happening all week. All year in fact. The compass whined, his arm tingled and jerked. Setting aside logic, he left the bedroom and trudged downstairs. Perhaps a walk to his workshop would soothe his nerves.

Outside, the air was only marginally fresher. The summer had been the hottest in living memory. Crops had shriveled, rivers had dried, birds had fallen from the trees and men had run amok with knives, driven mad by the oppressive heat. He fumbled with the new padlocks of his workshop, decrying the need for them. He hadn’t needed this much security until the break-ins had started. Once inside, he shut the doors and lit the gas lamp nearest to him.

As always he couldn’t help pausing in awe as he caught sight of the large object dominating the center of his workshop. His heart swelled with pride as he walked towards it. If pushed to describe his device, he would have said it looked like a sedan chair, because it had a chair with an instrument console in front of it, all this enclosed inside a hexagonal shell made of beaten copper and studded with black promethium magnets. Yet this was no ordinary sedan chair. This was his crowning achievement. This was the masterpiece which would catapult him to unheard-of fame and acclaim. This was, quite simply, the greatest invention of all time. An invention which could change time itself.

“Ow!” The sting in his hand cut off his self-congratulatory musings. “Blasted thing.”

He glared at the stalking compass in his grasp. It felt hot and heavy, the antenna quivering like a frenzied moth. It tugged at his hand, yanking him forward until he stood right in front of his invention.

“What now?” The compass needle pointed unswervingly at the chair inside his contraption.

Asher sighed. No, not yet. His invention wasn’t ready for human trial yet. Only last week had he finally completed his calculations. The laborious task had taken him several months of mind-numbing mathematical computations. He’d even been forced to consult with Schick about the correct algorithms to use. He’d been reluctant to approach the German mathematician, but he’d had no choice. It was vital to know the exact amount of electricity to run through his machine in order to calibrate it correctly. Any miscalculation would result in unknown catastrophe.

So he wasn’t about to risk his skin, no matter how much his damned stalking compass shrieked. The instrument continued to shrill, and his palm was beginning to burn. Well, it would do no harm to merely sit in the chair, if that would satisfy the infernal compass. He heaved himself into the seat. An acrid, alien smell of tobacco assaulted his nostrils.

“Faugh!” The odor made him gag. He surged to his feet, his one thought to get away from the seat. The stalking compass fell from his grip.

What happened next seemed to take minutes, yet only one or two seconds could have passed. He saw the compass falling yet was powerless to move. The compass fell on one of the many buttons embedded in the console in front of him. The button clicked several times, the compass bounced onto a second button, which also clicked randomly, and then it started to roll off the instrument console. It would have fallen to the floor, except for the fob chain. The chain caught around the most important lever, the start-stop lever, and wrapped itself tight. The weight of the compass and chain was nothing, a mere few ounces, certainly not enough to shift the stiffly geared lever. But as Asher watched on, frozen in horrified fascination, the lever started to grind down as though a ten-ton force was being applied.

Sweat sprang from every pore. “The devil take it! No—”

The air was sucked out of his lungs, and a great roaring filled his head. Fierce winds straight from Hades blasted him from all directions. Excruciating pain as fine as desert sand penetrated his skin, breaking him apart, cell by cell. He felt as if he were on fire. He heard himself grunting and groaning, the shuddering inside him fit to explode his skull as spasm after spasm racked his body.

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