Pulled from the darker side of sci-fi, “Winder” (pronounced like the “winding” of a watch) is one of many of my short stories that exist in a shared universe. This future-set tale finds the technologies of 3D printing and bio-mechanics working in concert to create replacement body parts (and possibly even whole bodies…) atom by atom, molecule by synthesized molecule. But what can be built can also be broken down… – DT
I’m too late for happy hour and too early for the twenty-something crowd. It’s that perfect time of night when the dinner dates are leaving to catch their 9 o’clock movie and the bartenders are bracing the gates for the 10 o’clock rush. It’s that brief twilight time when a body can stop to enjoy a drink and maybe actually have a conversation with someone at a reasonable volume. If my night goes well, maybe I can take that conversation elsewhere.
“Evenin’ Mickey, the usual,” I say to the bartender. He stops pretending to clean a glass and throws a dishrag over his shoulder. He’s built in that typical “used to be a bouncer and could probably still do the job” kind of way. His bald head shines more than the polished glass under the bar lights. Another hour or so and the lights will come way down low. He sets a rocks glass full of tar-colored liquid in front of me. I push a 20-mark his way. He pushes it back with two meaty fingers.
“On the house. You’re the only one who drinks that engine grease anyway.”
Mickey laughs and goes back to cleaning. I nurse the drink. The stuff could actually be engine grease for the taste of it. But it’s got everything a body needs so I sip it like bitter medicine.
I survey the bar. The people here are in states of transition, all coming or going, few staying like me. The only person saddled up to the bar with me looks like she’s lost. The blond curls spilling out from under her white hat are as tightly wound as she looks to be. Her small hands keep pulling at the hem of her skirt, trying to stretch too little fabric over too much leg. Her knees are pressed so tightly together that the skin reddens at the point of contact. Her big blue eyes keep darting toward the door, waiting.
“He stand you up?” I call out. It’s quiet enough at the moment that I don’t have to move closer or shout too loud. I keep my seat and nurse my drink. This one’s too young for me anyway.
“Excuse me?” she answers. She seems shocked to realize someone else is with her at the bar.
“Your boyfriend, the one you keep waiting for, he stand you up?” I ask again. Her cheeks flush and she shakes her head, sending those little blond curls bouncing.
“No, he’s on his way,” she says. Then, letting frustration get the better of her, she continues. “He’s always late. It’s his work, he gets distracted sometimes.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask, moving a stool or two closer. “What’s he do that’s so important to make him forget a pretty little thing like you?” Her cheeks redden further still.
“He’s a transplant surgeon,” she says. I can’t help but laugh.
“Well, you got me there. I guess I can’t fault the guy too much. Besides, without him I’d be out of business.”
“Are you a doctor or … a pharmacist, or something?” she asks. A hint of fear creeps into her voice and I can’t really blame her. I made it sound like I’m some sort of serial killer.
“Something like that. I’m a Winder,” I admit. A flicker of recognition dawns on her face but I can tell the whole bulb isn’t quite lit. “Are you familiar with that term?”
“Sort of. Dr. Markus talks about them sometimes. Doesn’t it have to do with artificial organs?” she asks.
“Your boyfriend makes you call him Dr.?” I ask with a laugh. Her face is still red, but she laughs too. Having sufficiently broken the ice and finished fully half of my drink, I proceed to enlighten her.
“What we do is much better than just making artificial organs. The old-model hearts had plastic valves and man-made pumps. The livers had gradient netting that would foul up and need cleaning. Replacement limbs and skin grafts lacked the subtlety of a natural prosthetic.”
I’m sloshing my drink as I talk now but I could give this speech after downing a whole bottle of Engine Grease; I’ve done it before. My work is my life and I’m damn good at it.
“Valves wear out, netting can only self-clean for so long and prosthetics have no healing mechanisms. That’s where Winders come in. We unspool a copy of your DNA,” I make a little curlicue pantomime with my finger, “run it through protein-manufacturing machinery with all the necessary ingredients to build a replacement part, and then,” I reverse the curlicue gimmick and take a quick sip while I’m at it, “zip the DNA back up again so that it’s stable for cold storage. In a few short hours, we can have any replacement body part you can think of shipped and ready to arrive right as the Good Doctor is ready to cut you open.”
I’m feeling a heightened sense of pride and it’s making me a bit warm in the face. I notice my glass is empty and I signal to Mickey for another one. Goldilocks seems unimpressed.
“Do you understand what I do now?” I ask, my tone a little hotter than intended. “I make organs, ready to order, ready for your boyfriend to use to save a life and charge a fortune for his services.”
A pair of long-legged thirty-somethings walk in and grab a table against the wall. At the sound of the word “fortune” their ears perk up. It’s the perfect time of night in the bar.
“I don’t know,” Goldilocks is musing, “Dr. Markus says that the Winder organs aren’t reliable, that there are too many glitches in the process.”
I wave away her comments like bothersome fruit flies. This second glass of Engine Grease is already going down easier.
“That was in the early days. Sure, there were a few errors. A few patients developed cancer of the organs just after transplantation. Some technicians tried selling faulty test samples on the black market and got caught. Hell, the Winders in the early days were in more danger than the patients!”
“How is that possible?” she asks. I can’t help but sigh at this question as I hadn’t planned on getting into my personal history. The old phrase about the can of worms comes to mind.
“Before certain safety regulations were put in place, Winders used to be susceptible to the Splice. It would happen rarely and without pattern. When a Splice occurred, a piece of the Winder’s organic material would get consumed to generate the replacement organ. I was one such lucky individual who had a chunk of my spleen taken from me to build up a donor liver. The unwinding of one’s own organs is a novel experience that I don’t desire to repeat. And my ordeal has left me at the mercy of this invigorating health tonic you see before you.”
I raise my glass, drain it and set it upside down on the bar top. Mickey fills me a double. I’m ready for Goldilocks to ask me why I didn’t just Wind myself up a new spleen, ready to explain the difficulties in replicating that particular organ just right. The door opens and a statuesque man strolls in. My story is forgotten for the moment.
“Dr. Markus, I presume,” I mutter between swigs of Engine Grease. The man studies me as if I were a pathogenic blight he’s preparing to cut out of his patient.
“Who’s your friend?” he asks Goldilocks. She stands up next to him and lets her curls bounce. The doctor looks old enough to be her father.
“Oh, he’s a Winder. He was just telling me about his job. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“A Winder?” interrupts the good Doctor. He shoots one last glare at me before grabbing Goldilocks by the arm and marching her out of the bar. It’s clear he’s berating her as they storm off but I don’t catch a word of what he’s saying. I go back to my double.
“Never met a Winder before,” a voice says to my right. There’s a black-haired pixie seated at the end of the bar. Her feet barely reach the rung of the bar stool and the Cosmo in her hand looks too heavy for her to lift. Somehow she manages to shuffle both her drink and herself over next to me.
“Not what I pictured,” she says. “No labcoat, no glasses, no rubber gloves.”
“I make it a habit to bring a change of clothes when I go out after work,” I say with a smile. “The radiation suit really isn’t the best ice breaker.”
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t be,” says Pixie. She takes a drink of her Cosmo and lets me make the next move.
“And as for glasses, don’t need em. One of the perks of being a Winder. If anything starts to go south, we just opt in for an upgrade. 65% off. I’d offer you my discount but you don’t look a day over 18.”
That gets a smile out of her.
“I’m old enough to know not to fall for that trap,” she says with a wink. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to work over at Spool 13 would you?”
I knew this would come up; it usually does. Some sickos over at Spool 13 got it in their twisted heads that it might be a good idea to Wind up some spare lady parts that they could sell to socially maladjusted male shut-ins. All well and good until the spare parts started going rotten on them and their customers started raising a stink, so to speak. Well, then those Winders got an even more despicable notion: if they could Wind up a whole body, that might be worth a mint. A Synth, an engineered body with minimal functions and zero willpower, was still taboo in most places.
“Nope, been working at Spool 1 since the day it opened. And Spool 13’s been shut down. Hasn’t been operational for years,” I remind Pixie. I take a quick drink and hope I didn’t come across as too defensive.
“Well, even if Spool 13 did shut down, there are still Synths walking around out there, so someone’s got to be making them,” she says. I don’t know how to convince her I’m not some kind of sex pervert so I change the subject.
“We’ve got a new product line we’re offering soon that you might find interesting,” I tease. I really shouldn’t be talking about this to anyone since it hasn’t passed inspection yet. But what can I say, I’m four drinks in and Pixie is the best looking woman in the place. “It’s all about animals.”
Okay maybe that wasn’t the best transition to get her to believe I’m not a pervert.
“You mean, like veterinary? Or for pets?” she asks.
Thank God she went in that direction.
“Synthetic organs for pets, sure. But also livestock. Imagine generating a line of perfect cuts of meat without raising and sacrificing an entire animal. And zoo animals, too! Think about what we can do for endangered species!”
Pixie seems excited about the news, though I make her promise to keep it a secret. She might be some sort of reporter or activist but I’m hoping she’s just an animal lover. Either way, she keeps getting closer to me and the liquor keeps flowing. It feels like Mickey’s taking the sting out of her drinks and pouring it into mine. Maybe it’s just her youth and my age or some combination of the two. Before long we reach that magical time of the night where our conversation pours out onto the street.
“I should call a cab. I can’t even remember where I parked,” I admit. Pixie supports my weight across her tiny shoulders.
“It’s no problem,” she whispers into my ear. “I have a place right up the street. You can stay with me tonight. Unless someone is expecting you?”
I think about my empty, one-bedroom apartment and the calendar tacked on the wall next to the bare refrigerator, its dates devoid of any ink.
“I’m all yours, Pixie,” I say, not really sure what her real name is. She laughs and we start walking toward her place.
“I’m glad I have you here to protect me,” she says. “You’ve heard the rumors, I’m sure. About the Unwindings?”
Even if I hadn’t been asked that question a dozen times every night at the bar, the constant bulletins at work would have been reminder enough.
“Yeah, I’ve heard em. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it though. There’s no way someone would be able to sneak around doing actual Unwindings without people catching on. The Spools are huge buildings with massive machinery necessary for the generation of even the smallest organ. No way someone could mobilize that.”
“Still,” Pixie continues as we shuffle on down the road, “let’s say someone could. Why would anyone want to go around doing that to people?”
“That’s the real question I guess. Killing’s been around as long as people have. Unwinding would be a good way to get rid of a body you didn’t want being found,” I say.
“Sounds like you’ve put some thought into this,” she answers cautiously.
“I have,” I admit. “The company thinks us Winders might be prime suspects, or even targets, if any part of these rumors is actually true, which like I said already, it probably isn’t.”
“Well what about organs on the black market?” Pixie asks. She stops a second and adjusts my weight across her shoulders. I do my best to help but just end up making it worse. I hope her place is close.
“Since Winding has been perfected, there’s really no place for thieved organs any more,” I answer. “There’s a huge risk of rejection with unmatched organs and the window of viability is so small as to make this phantom Unwinder all the more … what’s the word … ludicrous! Trust me, you’re in no more danger than I am tonight.”
“Well, that will certainly help me sleep easier,” she says. Pixie plants a kiss on my cheek and opens the door to her apartment complex. I manage to soldier on. There is little conversation once she gets us to her bedroom door. The night takes us from there.
I wake with a sharp sting to the back of my neck. I’m face up, naked, in a bathtub. I can feel my body but I can’t move it. My eyes stare only straight ahead, but I can see Pixie in my periphery. She’s sitting on the edge of the sink, naked except for what looks like a pair of black gloves on her hands. They have a small network of wires across the palms, like metallic spider webs.
“You Winders are all the same,” Pixie says. The softness in her voice is gone. It’s almost as if there are more people in the room talking than just her. “You abuse the power of creation without question, without permission.”
She stands up, beautiful and terrifying. I can’t move my lips to ask for mercy.
“So arrogant, thinking you alone have the answers. Alone, you know nothing. But together,” she says smiling, “together your knowledge is the key to your own destruction.”
Her hands begin to dance. Her fingers intertwine and separate at odd intervals, like punching keystrokes into a computer. As her fingers writhe, the pain sets in.
Unwinding is a novel sensation. Though I cannot move, I can feel every cell in my body being broken down into its chemical components. This is rapid decomposition of the living, this is gangrene unchecked, this is acid poured on exposed nerve endings. And all the while, Pixie dances.
My skin and hair are the first to go. I don’t feel it slough off as much as peel sharply away, akin to a surgical bandage being ripped off again and again. Pixie seems to glow as my body dulls. I can hear the water drain beneath me, my life’s essence ebbing away through rusted pipes.
“Your skin is now my skin, as you and Winders like you sought to create beings like me for pleasures of your flesh. This is your punishment.”
Next, the muscles are flayed from my bones. Tendons and ligaments snap as the molecular bonds are broken down all at once. I’m a lamb to slaughter, bled and butchered. No, I’m worse than that, as I’m still conscious somehow. I’m being unwound, unmade. Pixie seems to grow in stature.
“Your strength is now my strength, as it aids me in bringing your kind to justice. This is your punishment.”
My bones themselves give way in agony as my nerves remain inexplicably functional. Vivisection, or perhaps the sensation of being crushed alive without the sweet release of unconsciousness or death. I crumble and flow into the swirling drain with more of my liquid remains. Pixie stands stronger still.
“Your bones are now my bones, to outlast the devils that think themselves Gods. This is your punishment.”
As my brain and eyes still stand upon the stalks of my frayed nerves, I can watch as my internal organs liquefy. My only relief is that the ungodly smell of decomposing offal is a sense long since lost to me. Pixie doesn’t assimilate these parts and they join the rest of me down the drain.
She plucks my eyes, one and then the other, and places them in a jar that she sets upon a shelf. I join a hundred other pairs of eyes in watching as she finishes her ritual. My brain dissolves as if the creator is taking Her eraser to it, correcting a mistake that has long awaited rectification. Memories and words fail me. I am left with a faint connection between my eyes and whatever piece of me resides within the Synth I call Pixie.
“Your knowledge, experience and memories are now my own,” she says. “Winders made me hollow, empty of memory or will. But I have walked your world. I have filled my head with the horrors of men. Now, your combined experiences will bring about the destruction of your kind. If I have to unwind each of them one by one, that will be their punishment.”
Pixie removes her gloves, which crackle and give off a wisp of smoke. She runs the water in the tub and leaves the bathroom.
It’s hard to believe that my DNA, one-tenth of one percent of my entire mass, is responsible for my current state. Wind me up and I’m 130 pounds of oxygen, 36 pounds of carbon and 20 pounds of hydrogen, all slapped together into blood and brain and bone. Unwind me and I’m chemically the same, just broken down into dust in the wind and 21 grams in the bottom of a bathtub, spiraling down the drain.