Pattern Re-cog-nition

Ohm Zui

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Black and blue and white and pink sparks flew from the remains of the shattered, frozen egg that had protected them during their passage as Ohm Zui tumbled to the floor.


“Ba-zoo that hurt!”


The blue creature recovered from their impact with relative grace, propeller whirling to life briefly to allow them to perch upright. Around them, Ohm could see green and brown vegetation crawling over rusted walls and sooted paving stones. The sky above them was dark and grey with smoke, and the abandoned courtyard was illuminated both by a reflected orange glow from some urban area high above, rotating along the great gear it was built upon.


The sight of such a vast mechanism quickly brought about a realisation.


“I’m in heaven. I’m dead and I’ve… no, wait, there’s no one else here. Okay, not dead, just somewhere else. Phew.”


The small tinkerer began to explore the area they had landed in as they began to move, propellor whirring quietly.


“Hmm… signs of craftsbiniship, but also of disrepair. Ooh, a cog! I’ll hang on to that. So probably civilised. And there’s light from that gear in the sky. I wasn’t the only one in that vortex, so I’ll need to keep an eye out for other zoombinis.”


Ohm perched on a low wall, balancing on their propeller as their two flagella picked the cog they’d found out of the grass that had ensnared it and placed it safely in their pack. Once they had secured their cargo, they returned to motion, flying carefully from perch to perch to ascend the building that sheltered their point of arrival.


At the top, Ohm was struck by a blast of heat. Below them, on the opposite side of the building, the space between two enormous teeth lay. A black and orange ocean of half-molten slag churned far below, the light and heat reflected and wafted up between the magnificent tableau of clockwork and engineering that lay before them. Great gears miles in diameter span in steady synchrony, suspended by enormous axles and pipes and frames that intercrossed in an elegant latticework of hard wrought metal. Gearboxes and screw threads channelled the motion between these vast pieces, and interweaved throughout it all jets of steam and superheated gases emerged from the innumerable engines that Ohm could see glistening in the light.


“Zoo-wee... “ they muttered in disbelief and awe. “Zoo-wee… what have you found yourself this time, Ohm Zui?”


“I’ll tell you what I’ve found,” they answered themselves. “I’ve found opportunity! Time to go see if the residents live up to the marvels they live upon.”


With that, the blue amoeboid spun their propeller to life and made a beeline for the twinkling lights of a city at night that danced tauntingly overhead.
 

Ohm Zui

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Ohm pressed on towards the gear that loomed overhead, steadily getting more and more tired as they pressed their propeller further. It was risky to fly far off the ground, but as they drew nearer to the piece of machinery, they could tell they would be able to safely make it to a perch.


They took a moment to look behind them. The gear they had arrived on continued to rotate slowly below, the disc covered in miles of ruins and vines. Ohm tried to spot the place they had arrived, but there was little to distinguish it from any of the other broken places that lay on the rim of the gear.


They turned to continue their rise when a metallic shriek caught their attention. Glancing to the side, the zoombini spotted a large bird, metallic wings flapping, heading straight for them, beak wide.


Ohm stopped their propeller and dropped beneath the bird’s path, the turbulence of its passage sending them tumbling through the air. They regained their balance in time to see the bird brake its flight with great beats of its wings.


They began to fly as quickly as they could towards the gear, propeller whirring frantically. Focused on escape, they dodged to the left as they heard the bird approaching again, narrowly avoiding the snap of its beak closing around where they had been.


Two more close calls and Ohm made it to the underside of the gear. Wires and pieces of gantry hung loosely down from the metal surface, and Ohm ducked and weaved their way through the nearest narrow gap. The bird following them backed away, too large for the space. Ohm lowered themselves to perch on the gantry, resting their aching flagella as they peered out from their hiding place. The metal bird, now that they could focus on it rather than escape, was clearly made of some kind of clockwork, and a single malevolent red eye stared at Ohm’s hiding place as it circled.


After a few minutes of hiding, the bird flew out of Ohm’s line of sight. The zoombini mused for a second on the situation.


“Hmm… I think I need to set up a little bit of a fallback plan if that creature is still out there…” they said to themselves, before their eyes fell on a collection of lights and wires that lay abandoned on a neighbouring gantry. “... and I’ve just had an idea.”


---


It was the work of moments to take the cog they had scavenged earlier and combine it with the lights. It took more time to flit between the gantries, setting up a series of mirrors and weaving the wires together, but within a minute Ohm hooked a chain into a revolving axle nearby and with a shaky groan and whir a grid of coloured light beams formed between the gantries. The four colours danced and intersected regularly, and Ohm darted carefully into the centre, taking care to only pass through a select set of beam intersections.


“Done! Very pretty. Now let’s go and see if that flying scrapbucket is still hanging around.”


Propeller whirling, Ohm navigated out of the maze and began to dart towards the edge of the gear, leaving their trap behind.


---


A couple of minutes later, and a glint of red off a shined piece of metal was all the warning Ohm received before the bird slashed through the space they had been moments earlier.


“Ba-zoo!”


The zoombini turned and darted back the way they’d come, the bird arcing quickly round and giving chase.


Ohm ducked between narrow gaps, taking every opportunity to increase the space between them and the avian chasing them. They span between the teeth of a spinning gear and spotted their creation shining not far ahead. Fixing their gaze, they pushed their propeller to its limit, making a beeline for the edge of the light beams.


The bird behind them screeched and flapped its wings, gaining ground. As Ohm darted into the beams of light, the bird did not hesitate to follow.


Ohm span onto an intersection of a green, blue and yellow beam as the bird crossed an intersection of only red beams. As it did so, wires spat out along the red beams, turning the maze into a flying hazard that caught the bird completely by surprise. It squawked in a sound of screeching metal as the wires constricted around it, catching it and pulling it into the centre of the maze. For a brief moment, the beams of light shut off, and Ohm hurried to join the bird where it was struggling against the wires cutting into its wings. As they arrived, the gear finished turning and the beams returned with a new arrangement of colours. Ohm navigated back out through the new arrangement, taking care to avoid any intersection where the colours of any two beams matched, and perched on a nearby gantry in time to see the bird break free.


They stared, confident, as the bird tried to charge them, only to trigger the trap again within moments, the wires spinning out, catching it, and pulling it back into the centre. The lights turned off, then came back.


For several minutes the bird struggled, eventually giving up on having a zoombini for lunch and just trying to escape. Even then, its efforts were futile: unable to work out how the wires were being targeted, the bird would trigger them every time it broke free. Eventually, it gave up, hanging unhappily in the centre of the puzzle, great gashes in its wings where its escape attempts had repeatedly caused the wires to cut into it.


Ohm, seeing the bird was defeated, made their way carefully through the beams of light and hovered near the trussed up bird. Now that it was no longer trying to eat them, they could see that the bird was intricately designed, with hundreds of small pieces crammed into its chassis.


“Fascinating,” they muttered, “I can’t wait to see what sort of place is responsible for you. I imagine they must be well off, with this level of ingenuity on display. Pity you malfunctioned enough to try to eat me: must be some form of self-repair instinct built in?”


The bird struggled tiredly, but lay still again as the wires dug in more.


“Well, time to go see this place.”


And with that, Ohm turned and left, leaving the bird stuck in the puzzle trap. They had a city to explore.
 

Ohm Zui

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The geartown of Platynoom, Ohm was quickly discovering, was not as they had hoped it would be. Just from overhearing conversation in a public establishment, the little zoombini had discovered that the world that they were on (and wasn’t that a surprise) was called Govermorn, and that Platynoom was one of the backwater slums that were all too common across the planet-spanning city.


People of all sizes and descriptions littered the streets, some lying dishevelled and downtrodden, others doing little but trudge from home to work to establishment to home. Ohm had flitted unnoticed across the rooftops, staving off their own hunger with increasing incredulity at the state of the place. Catastrophes in zoombini history had reached this state rarely, but never for long: the small blue creatures had a habit of evacuating and rebuilding when their indomitable spirit couldn’t solve the problem directly.


Feeling bewilderment and confusion finally make way for hunger and thirst, Ohm found themselves gravitating towards the smell of a burning campfire, a smoke that smelled of woods and vines rather than bitter oils and coals. The smell led them over the rooftops to a small series of buildings that had crammed themselves back to back, stacking up and creating a hidden nook in the rooftops that Ohm only found by virtue of their propeller. Within the hidden space a small series of tents hung from wires suspended around a small cooking pot, tended to by a couple of creatures. One was a tall figure, dressed in padded leather clothing that bore the marks of combat, wielding a ladle with the same precision expected of wielding the crossbow slung at their side; the other, a short creature, a multitude of clockwork limbs stretching out behind them like tails, using a pair of tongs to gingerly add bundles of hewn and thorny vines into the fire.


As Ohm watched, they saw that both figures had pieces of machinery as part of them: further, they saw signs of inexpert repair slowly failing in little winces and small movements. Plucking up their nerve, they let out a small whistle.


As one, the two figures heads shot up to peer into the darkness. The taller’s hand moved to their side, resting calmly on their crossbow. The shorter’s limbs moved to a guarded position, crossed in front of them and bent around them. Neither relaxed as they saw Ohm perched out on the edge of the roof nearby, but they didn’t move to attack them either.


“Evening!” Ohm said, with a brightness they weren’t feeling.


“... evening,” the tall one said, cautiously.


“I’m an engineer, if you need one.”


“Hm.” The two of them gave each other a quick, meaningful glance.


“I’m also hungry, so if you would be willing to share that would be nice.”


A short moment passed as the two creatures communicated with looks and slight motions. When they finished, the tall one turned their attention fully back to Ohm.


“... bold little being, aren’t you.”


“I prefer focused and practical.”


With a wary chuckle, the two of them gestured for Ohm to join them by their fire.


---


A full meal of coppery stew and fresh repairs for the two beings prosthetics did wonders for the atmosphere, and soon the three of them were relaxing with mugs of something hot and brown. The tall being had introduced himself as Durian Down, and when his companion mentioned him sometimes smelling like his namesake she’d swiftly received a punch in the arm. For her part, she’d told Ohm to call her Vix (“- my parents called me Vixen Gauge which is a bit on the nose even for them, -”). The human and the foxkin were apparently professional scavengers, regularly making a living by venturing into abandoned and overgrown districts.


“- and some people might call us crazy but they sure aren’t looking at themselves. And hey, at least we aren’t desperate enough to head to the Gutterwastes.”


“The Gutterwastes? Why would that be a desperate move?” Ohm had revealed their ignorance carefully, but the two scavengers had visibly relaxed at the knowledge, for some reason.


“Okay,” Durian took over, tapping his mug against Vix’s. “So Platynoom’s a shithole, but it’s still livable, right? And it’s smack bang next to three other gear districts that have been overtaken by scrap and disrepair and those vines that started growing from a sewage works and never stopped, but those are fairly small and if anyone cared enough they could hire a bunch of workers and level it off and rebuild them as, I don’t know, some coal refinery or glass cutting district or something, right?”


Ohm nodded.


“The Gutterwastes is… basically the biggest gear on the planet,” Vix said, one of their tail limbs gesticulating a huge circle overhead, “and it is covered from one side to the other with nothing but layer upon layer of refuse. Like, that’s the place you drop a starship hull you don’t want to pay to be smelted down, that’s the place you throw that automata that killed four people before shutting down, that’s the place you dump the toxic byproduct of your fancy new potion making factory.”


Ohm’s eyes grew large behind their goggles at the description.


“And on top of that,” Durian continued, expression growing grim, “it’s where they throw the people they can’t be bothered with. If you’re in debt to some arsehole in Dapplethain, if you’ve been stirring up trouble in Ashport, if you’re unlucky enough to be caught on the streets when someone decides to solve the homelessness problem, if you’re a criminal or just unlucky…”


He trailed off, taking a deep swig of his mug and wrinkling his nose at the bitter taste. Ohm stared at the two of them in slight shock.


“That’s horrible!” they breathed.


“Yeah.”


The three of them sat in silence for a while, fire crackling next to them. Eventually, Ohm broke the silence.


“So… Dapplethain?” they asked.


“Yeah, Dapplethain. It’s the place of governance and accounting and legal stuff. It’s got a lot of people puffed up on their own importance, and its fancy as all get out, but its barely able to handle the affairs of Tinkerdrift let alone anywhere less profitable.” Durian snorted loudly and derisively as he scuffed his boot against the tiles beneath his feet.


“Durian’s angry for his own reasons, but he’s not wrong. Like, there’s basically only three gears that even matter to them: Ashport, because that’s where the ships come and go; Tinkerdrift, because that’s where anyone goes if they can invent stuff; and Dapplethain itself.”


Ohm squinted in thought.


“So why doesn’t anyone do something?” they asked. “I mean, if they don’t care, what’s stopping people from just making things better for their own communities?”


“Because if they try and succeed, they get lumped in with the nutjobs in the Gutterwastes. There’s someone calling themselves the Architect that has themselves a whole spiel about how they and everyone should tear down the whole city, rebuild it from blood and spittle, and it’s just threatening enough that anytime some gear seems to be too independent, Dapplethain arranges for the leaders to be rounded up and industry moves in to tighten their hold on their workers in fear of trouble. And if they try and fail, Scranbarrow has no end of gangs looking to profit, to swoop in and snag anything that’s valuable, including people.” Durian stops and takes in a deep breath, before letting it out slowly.


Vix used one of their tails to pat him on the back. “Yeah, it’s a mess. Anyway, I think that’s enough of the heavy stuff: how about you tell us how you came to be so good with tinkering?”


Ohm took the tangent as what it was, and changed the conversation. They had plenty to think about already: now they’d entertain the two scavengers with a few tales, to thank them for the information.
 

Ohm Zui

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Having earned a small amount of funds by repairing equipment around Platynoom, Ohm took a moment to plan ahead. While few people were as willing to discuss the matter, it had become clear quite quickly that the opinions of Durian and Vix were commonly held amongst the other inhabitants and visitors to the gear, but they weren’t willing to just accept the matter as a given. Any puzzle could be solved, but only if you knew the rules, and Ohm was more than intent on observing those rules for themselves.


According to a couple of scrap collectors whose automated wheelbarrow they had fixed, the nearest of the five gears they wanted to visit was Tinkerdrift. Ohm couldn’t help but hold out hope that the discontent about the gears status was merely poor press: surely a place where great minds came together to invent and discover had more than enough inventive incentive to plan how to solve the problems that plagued the rest of the planet? Regardless, Ohm resolved themself to find out in person.


They had obtained a rudimentary haversack that fastened, with a little modification, to the base of their propeller, and it was into this they were currently loading their supplies. A small amount of food and water would suffice them over passage to the next habitable gear, and apparently the bridges from then on were configured to handle some automated cargo transport. Ohm was certain they’d be able to devise a more rapid solution to their travel speed requirement once they had made it there.


Everything secure, they took to the sky, propeller whirling rapidly as they skimmed the rooftops and avoided the oppressive column of steam and smoke that billowed from the town’s sole factory complex. At the bridge, a small column of foot traffic moved in the early morning light, and as Ohm had learned over the past few days, the toll extorted by the maintainers of the cantilevered construction was enough to halve the income of those that had to use it. Fortunately, Ohm was in possession of the right form of locomotion to avoid those fees.


They dropped down through the teeth of the gear a decent distance away, and found a suitable perch to wait. As the gear of Platynoom rotated, the end of the bridge stayed in place, and after half an hour the notch in the gear came in line with the underside. Unobserved by the bridgekeepers, Ohm flew steadily across, resting once at the halfway mark on one of the support struts. Once they had reached the far side, they found another perch and waited another fifteen minutes to rotate away from the bridge end.


The puzzle designer emerged from their crossing idly proud of their logical skills, leaving the bridge to Platynoom behind as they set off through the narrow streets of the half-empty gear of Coshko.


---


Over the next two days, Ohm travelled quietly and safely from gear to gear. After Coshko, they reached Musanki, then Metrognome, and finally Valve Junction.


The gear of Valve Junction, unlike the gears that they had traversed before, had built into its surface a carefully calibrated plate that rotated precisely to counter the movement of the gear beneath it. This marvel of engineering had been created to allow for future construction of a major station for some form of special transportation, and it was this that currently held Ohm’s attention.


Looking out over the gleaming brass of the steam valves and thermistor relays that lined the streets, Ohm took a moment to contemplate the skyline and admire what some intelligent designer had wrought.


“Wa-za-na… very impressive.”


With that, Ohm finished eating their sandwich and dropped down from the roof on which they were perched. They spun their propeller hard to level out in the back alley, and headed for the largest building in the district. Before they continued on to Tinkerdrift, whose silhouette could now be seen in the distance, they wanted to gather a few more supplies, and the more affluent members of Valve Junction might have just what they were looking for.


As they thought this, a pair of dilettantes passed the mouth of the alley. Ohm stopped at the corner, peering round to listen in on their conversation.


“- and I said that there was no hope for the Burgundian Brass to make it to the Concerta finales, and then she said-”


“Yes yes, she said that their sponsor had ears in Dapplethain, you mentioned Beetrice, but have you heard about the commissioner’s death? It’s scandalous I tell you, he choked on a croissant!”


“No!”


“Yes! See for yourself!”


As Ohm watched, the wider of the two pulled a device from their pockets and turned one of the cogs on the side. A mechanical display spun and whirred, tiny panels rotating to reveal what appeared to be a headline and article from some newspaper.


“Oh! What on Govermorn was he doing with that many pastries?”


“Well the author doesn’t say directly, but if you read between the lines it is clear that he’d been having an affair, so is it much of a stretch to say that his wife’s cousin, who is a baker, did the deed?”


“Oh my! Oh gosh!”


The two tittered to each other as they rounded the corner, and Ohm wriggled their nose in distaste. Disregarding the women’s behaviour, the device they had used seemed just the sort of thing they needed to get their flagella on: something that could be a source of information and a display item.


The zoombini began to comb the streets, seeking out more of these devices. It was clear after a little observation that it was not a common item: the average worker in the streets was still reading the broadsheet plastered by the theatre or listening to a mechanical town crier. The more well to do, on the other hand, had several, and eventually Ohm tracked down a shop that sold them. Demarcated in elaborate font, ‘Parson’s Pneumatic Post & Phonical Pieces’ was a tall building with two big displays in its street windows, displaying a marvellous array of gadgets and devices that Ohm examined appreciatively. The craftsmanship was impeccable, and their keen eye spotted several arcane runes carved carefully into the outside of some of the pneumatic lines.


As they perched outside, occupied with visually dissecting the mechanisms in front of them, Ohm failed to notice the approach of an employee before a polite cough startled them from their thoughts.


“Excuse me, sir,” the heavy-set being said, softly, “but my employer asked me to ask you to move along. She says you’re disturbing the customers.”


Ohm looked up at the employee, seeing distress in their expression and the wringing of their hands. Deciding not to raise a fuss, they rose into the air so that their faces were level.


“Sorry to cause you trouble. Before I go, can I ask what the cheapest piece in the shop is worth?”


A look of relief crossed the being’s face. “Thank you. The cheapest piece is about four hundred widgets, or sixty Dapplethain rubles. If you have Coins, there’s an exchanger down the road.”


Ohm blinked, noting the exorbitant sum, before bouncing in thanks and zipping off down the street.


They didn’t go far before nipping into an alley and doubling back over the rooftops. As they perched on top of the shop, they examined the back to find a scrap bin, filled with broken and defunct devices. The zoombini nipped down and extracted the six best looking devices, before darting off into the back alleyways.


---


Some tinkering, redesigning and bodging later, Ohm had a functional pneumatic communication device, and they accessed the Medium for the first time. Settling down by the cosy ventilation of a small bakery, they began to browse.
 
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