The immense grinding noise of the First Gear could be heard for miles from its position in the center of Perduto and ranged from a dull roar to a deafening industrial clangor within the city itself. The cause of this titanic, infernal noise was readily apparent once one saw the First Gear itself. The Gear was colossal, its circumference scraping well below the subways and under-houses of the city and back up to compete with the broken skyscrapers for height. Its teeth linked together with a number of smaller gears in a long chain that cut through the center of Perduto and continued into the wasted countryside until it met another city and another city beyond that. A vast, endless network of gears that powered the machines that kept the world from dying completely. The First Gear was the engine for all of it, the axis upon which the world lived and breathed, the God that controlled the fate of humanity.
It was hard for anyone to say which had come first: Perduto or the First Gear. People knew that one had been built around the other, but it had been lost which had been which. Most people believed that the Gear had come first, some saying that the Gear had always been there. It certainly made sense. The entire existence of Perduto was to keep the Gear turning smoothly. In some fashion, all of the citizens bent their will towards keeping the world alive. People were born, lived, and died knowing nothing but the service of the Gear.
Anna wasn't quite the same. Anna held no job. She did not serve the Gear as others did. Anna's purpose was to worship the Gear. Everyday she walked along the catwalks where the noise of the Gear was loudest, where it was a symphony of madness. Most avoided the center of Perduto where the Gear made its home, their service to it ending with earphones and distance. Anna alone walked the metal plates that paralleled the Gear, reveling in its roar and crash as the teeth of the Gear and its smaller neighbors came together.
Anna was deaf. If she had born that way or was made that way by her worship of the Gear was unknown even to her. Those who wished to give her the tasteless food of the city or the money with which to buy that same food wanted to do so, they had to touch her or gesture frantically to get her attention. She would give them a smile and take the proffered good with a nod and caress of the hand or arm. Then she would eat if it was food and head to a store if it was money, returning to watching the Gear as quickly as possible.
And so deaf, poor Anna sat. Her home was its catwalks. Her music was its noise. Her art was its form. All she knew was the Gear.
Matthew was not like Anna. He did not worship the Gear by thought but by action. Every day Matthew awoke in the tiny apartment that was all he and Perduto could afford. He showered, dressed, ate, and then headed out along the trains that rushed about the city.
About halfway to his destination, just as the noise of the Gear became unbearable, Matthew and the other passengers of the train would don their earphones to muffle the din. The noise of the Gear would be silenced and the train's occupants would continue in peace.
The machine houses were an ancillary noise below that of the Gear, the winds to its brass. Rotors embedded in the ceiling spun about while pistons lurched in and out of their cradles, producing a great slamming noise every time they came home and a dozen other machines toiled and clanged. Workers dashed about, beneath, and around this cacophony, in a desperate race to keep the machines and the Gear running. Above it all, the supervisors stood, not working but making sure everyone else did.
Matthew was one of those workers who scurried about, but in his spare time he did not maintain the machines but tinkered with them. He did this with the cautious approval of the supervisors, allowed to work only on the machines that were harmless, that would produce only a minor inconvenience if broken. And he made those machines extraordinary. He allayed his supervisors' fears by convincing them that he would make the machines faster and more efficient and he delivered. Less fuel and work was needed to keep the machines running when Matthew was finished with them and so the supervisors let him move on to bigger and more important machines. He made those work better too. Soon, the city governor took note of Matthew and promoted him, first to junior supervisor, then to supervisor, then to head supervisor until Matthew became master of all of the machine houses in Perduto. But he was content to give his duties to others as long as he could continue to tinker with the machines. And, because everything Matthew worked on became better, he was allowed to.
At first, Matthew was motivated to his tinkering by a desire to improve the machines and the city. Then, as time went on, Matthew discovered the many fascinating aspects of the machines. He marveled at the mind of whoever made the devices, at their perfect simplicity yet astounding complexity. He began to tinker not just to improve the city but to find out more about the machines, to consume all the knowledge about them that he could. Matthew began to fancy himself a acolyte of the Inventor, and then a peer, and finally, as he aged and his gait grew slow but his hands and mind remained quick, Matthew believed he surpassed the Inventor. He began to experiment with the more critical machines, the ones that controlled the recirculators that purified the poisoned air and the ones that kept the train tracks separate and the trains from colliding. Matthew no longer wanted to improve them but to learn more about them, to see how they worked and how they could fail, so that he could gloat to himself that he knew more than the Inventor.
And the machines did fail. Matthew's tinkering caused the recirculators to break, flooding poison into many of the city districts and killing hundreds. The train tracks crossed each other and trains crashed together, killing dozens more, and further stagnating the entire city. The machines were quickly repaired and the rest of Perduto saved but Matthew was banished from the machines and imprisoned in his apartment. And for a time, Matthew wept, separated at last from the machines that had been the sole purpose in his life for so many years. He repented his sins and swore to whomever would listen that he would never do it again, if he could just be allowed some little machines. But no one listened and in time, Matthew grew bitter and vengeful. He began to think that this was poor payment for the years of service he had given to the city, that they should have rewarded him for his improvements and disregarded his few mistakes. He would prove them wrong. He would show them that he was still useful. He would make the First Gear better. He would make it run faster and better.
And so one night Matthew crept past the guards that kept him prisoner. He quietly stole down the streets of Perduto, towards the noise of the Gear. He found the machine houses that held the true engine of life, the one that powered the Gear itself. And he began to tinker. To prove himself right.
The Inventor was named John and in honor of his invention of the First Gear, Perduto had sealed him in a tower to make more machines forever.
At first, this did not bother John. John liked to make machines that helped others. And for many years, that is just what he did. He sat in his tower workshop and experimented and created, happy that he had a purpose in life.
Then John grew weary and old, and asked the governors of Perduto if he could stop inventing and rest until his death. The governors grew distressed and ordered him to return to his tower. A day later, they began to give John medicine. They said the medicine could keep John alive forever. John grew angry and refused the medicine but the governors insisted and began to force John to take it. In time, simply to avoid the daily struggle and violence, John took the medicine willingly and continued to invent. But his inventions were filled with John's own bitterness and painted with John's own tears and no longer worked as well.
The governors did what they could to keep John happy. They gave him what books remained, but he read the books and learned much from them and did not improve. They installed cameras throughout the city so John could watch everything and he did this but it only made him more depressed and bitter to see what people had become. John's inventions became poor and faulty and so the governors began to ignore John and John ignored the governors, watching his cameras and taking his medicine. In time, decades after the governors John hated so much died, the only person who was even aware that John existed was the one who brought him the medicine that kept him alive forever.
John stopped inventing and experimenting and just watched the cameras, mourning the people he saw there. He could faintly remember a time before he had invented the First Gear that people had been happy and free. The immense construct had only made people sad and dependent. And so John wept once more, crying for Perduto and the terrible damage his invention had done.
John's cameras let him watch Anna, and so he became aware of the beggar that worshiped the Gear and he wept for her foolish devotion. John's cameras let him watch Matthew, and he mocked the tinker's arrogance and then wept for the harm that arrogance inflicted. But still he watched. He watched as Matthew stole down the streets of Perduto, knowing what the tinker was going to do and knowing what the result would be. He watched has Matthew began to explore the Gear's power source and, as his mind and hands were not as quick as they once were, Matthew broke the device. The First Gear stopped turning and its immense bulk tipped. The final crash of the First Gear came down on Perduto, crushing all the buildings and rails that lay beneath it. John watched as the First Gear crushed Anna, who sat staring at the colossus has it came down on her. John watched as the machines that powered Perduto were destroyed and the city dissolved into chaos, the poisonous air flooding into every room and killing all before it. John watched as the trains collided and the last frantic moments of their lives, people ran about, crying and screaming and wanting an answer that would never come. John watched as the line of gears and machines that extended from Perduto every other city in the world failed, robbed of its power and every other city in the world died like Perduto.
And has the poison flooded John's own room and has John smelled the reek that was the poison's signature, John smiled and did not weep.
Ian's Notes: I'm going to go ahead and cheat and post a story that I finished several years ago. Some of you have actually already read this, but this is probably a good opportunity to refresh your memories.
The Three Gears is the only story I have written stream-of-consciousness. It was inspired by a music video that briefly showed an animated image of a massive chain of gears, and from that picture, the rest of the story came. It was written in two days, entirely flowing from mind to page without any real input from me. If that sounds strange, well, that's because it was, but would be rather handy to have around now.
Gears has received no editing since I wrote it, simply because I can't personally think of what to add or remove. It is also where I get my usual Internet handle, 1stGear.