It was maybe seven o’clock, I can’t be sure though since my watch was confiscated. Maybe that’s something you can help me with?
Sure, look into it. Anyway, I don’t understand why you’re asking me these questions again, I already talked to—
Contradictory evidence? What evidence? You got— A tape?
Yeah. No. Yeah. Yeah, I guess I—I better change my statement. But it’s—
Sure. Anyway, like I said, seven o’clock or so. Joe was working next to me on Turbine 85-B, like he’s been for the last four years or so. I know him okay, we went to school together, not real friends but ran in the same crowd, you get it. He’s a good man, his kids, his wife, they know his love for them. He hadn’t seemed like he was feeling too hot the last couple weeks, though. Always stopping to take off his glove and cough in his hand, sweating all the time. Once he had to go off to the waste shunt for a good half-hour, but—-
No, I covered for him but—No, it’s not like that, he—Well I’m reporting it now, ain’t I? Can I go on?
Gee, thank you. Joe was—jees I can’t see the good of needing to know this. That day, around seven, I noticed his hands were going floppy. I seen it before, I know what it looks like, may not be no doctor but I’m old enough to know what flop fingers look like. So I put my hand on his shoulder.
“What’s going on, Joe?” I said. “You feeling okay?”
“Boy, them’s more words than you spoke all year, Quent,” he said. “You mad or something?”
“No, it’s your hands, Joe. Ain’t got no erection to em.”
“You reckon so?” he said, sweating up a river. For a moment it looked like he was going to get himself caught in the L-47 gear, just like what happened to the last one, but then he pulled it out just in time, a little buzz and flash of silver the only sign of his brush with death.
“Joe, your paws are mush, you know it.” I squeezed his hands in mine. “You been drinking your H-Two-Whoa?”
He coughed out a little laugh, spat into his glove, and when he spoke I saw red on his teeth. “Guess I must’ve missed one or two.”
I grabbed at the bottle at his side, and though he made motion like he would fight me for it, he didn’t have the will. I pulled off the top and took a sniff.
“Regular water? What’re you thinking?” I said, clutching at his arm. “You know filthy regular water’s not enough. Only H-Two-Whoa has all the minerals our bodies need to keep us strong, so we can keep the State strong, and maintain the fight against Containment.”
“Quent, we bottle the stuff right here, I know how important it is. I know nobody’s nothing if they don’t Drink Strong™.”
“So you know the quality and care we put into it. It’s guys like you and me, working hard, by families for families, that power the Red Order, and they in turn power us.”
He couldn’t lift his head, so heavy was his shame. “You know I can’t afford it. Fourth is on the way, and I can’t have no little one growing up all soggy-boned.” Goddamn tears were coming out of his eyes. Man didn’t cry when his own father was sent to Recycle.
Now look, I know it’s against regulation, but, well you know from the tape. I offered my own. “Drink from mine,” I said. “You have to keep going. And you’ll love its greenlicious taste.”
But he refused. “You know what they’d do to you if they found out. And you’ve got your own to worry about.” My Speckle, he’s a good boy. Such a good boy. Joe looked up at his machine, the twirling cylinders and the suspended glowing spheres, the squirting hydraulic fluid. “Sometimes I think if I look hard enough I’ll see all the way to the ceiling,” he said, a dreamy look in his eyes.
“H-Two-Whoa makes you feel like you’re flying on the ceiling,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, where it sagged through his rotting collar bone. He looked at me, and one of his eyes was a little askew, like his eye socket was melting already.
“I bet if I got stuck, and didn’t pull back fast enough, it wouldn’t take long. Just a whoosh and a whoof and it’s over.”
“Don’t talk like that, Joe.”
“Don’t tell em what really happened, will ya? My kids, they’ll take away their rations if they think I—-Just tell em it was an accident. You’ll do that?”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. But I didn’t know how else to answer. “Of course I will.”
He was sending trails across his greasy cheeks again. He wiped away a tear with his glove. “More water. If only I could cry H-Two-Whoa. I could Drink Strong™ forever. Tell my kids I love em. Goodbye Quent.”
His arm had gone floppy by that point, I don’t think he’d reckoned that when he grabbed onto a sphere. If only his hand hadn’t been floppy he’d have been able to hold on through and he’d have been minced in five seconds flat. But without any strength in his sagging arm, it bunched up around the edges, and as it happened he spun up too high, missing the mark, most of his body hitting the Compactor.
I don’t think I’ll ever get his screams out of my head. There wasn’t anything I could do, it was too late to shut down the power flow, even if I did it’d just have taken him even longer to go. After looking at the switch and then at him, I suppose I tried to tell him that with my eyes, since it wouldn’t do no good saying it with his ears already gone. He was looking straight at me, though, and I could see in his eyes he knew where he’d gone wrong, his goddamn droopy arm, if maybe he’d taken my offered sip he wouldn’t have had to die the way he did, ripped apart a little bit at a time. It had spun him around, taking him from his feet up, leaving his head for last, and he stayed around for all of it, felt every last bit of that agony.
Listen, I know I should have told you sooner, but he’s got four kids, and those—
Well yes, my Speckle, he’s—
No. No you can’t do that.
Please. Please, you can’t, he’s only seven. Take mine, you can take it from me, but not him. Please, I should have told you sooner, but don’t hurt my boy for it.
No, please. I’m begging you, please. My boy.
My boy won’t be nothing if he don’t Drink Strong™.