Howard walked in and sat down. The belt moved. They knew he was there, the chip in his neck told them so. Seventeen bolts, eighteen washers, two cotter pins, grease, a torque body assembly, a digital signature, and six minutes. The line moved again and he repeated the steps. He called the belt the highway to nowhere. He had never been to the other end of it, just as he had never been to the beginning of it. Sometimes what he worked on changed, or the instructions were new or different, it didn’t matter. The crimson red clock counted down and he kept working. In nine years the line had never stopped, in nine years he had never interacted with another co-worker. It was all insulated and it had been made so very carefully.
Howard would pretend that he was in a competition, every bolt was being timed by his clock and every new technique was being judged by an audience. They would cheer when a bolt threaded particularly fast, and gasp when his fingers stumbled even slightly. In his mind he was playing a game that few could comprehend and even fewer could handle.
The clock hit zero, the crowd cheered, but the line didn’t move.
At first he thought that maybe he wasn’t done. Maybe they really were watching and saw that he had done something wrong. It had never happened before, but he quickly checked the assembly over again, ready to drop it if the belt started again.
He put it back down. The line still didn’t move and the clock still sat at zero. He just sat and stared straight ahead. His assembly never, left, it never went to nowhere. They had presented him with a situation that he couldn’t handle, one he couldn’t understand, and for five hours until his shift ended he just sat there paralyzed.