Each second ticked by with a resounding clack, the large clock both visible and audible from everywhere in the office. “Don’t waste my time,” the boss had told every new employee on their first day, his gruff and callous demeanor instantly putting them on edge. Those four words were the only interaction he had with most employees, at least the lucky ones.

Occasionally the omnipresent cloud of oppressive dread which permeated the office would be temporarily replaced by hushed relief as someone was called into the boss’ room – someone else, at least. Hiring and firings at the firm were handled very simply; either someone worked – under the unwavering weight of the large clock – or they did not. New employees would arrive to desks that had been occupied, then cleaned out, shortly before. Small talk was kept to a minimum, because in nobody’s job description was written “form relationships with co-workers.”

Travis stared at the clock, as if trying to look straight through it, as his workstation churned and processed the results from his latest sample. He didn’t remember the last time he had been home, so pressing was the importance of his labors, but he knew he was nearly done. Looking around the midnight office, most desks were still in use, his coworkers typing away on whatever project they had been assigned by the shift foreman. He didn’t even know what kind of work they were doing – the projects never seemed to leave time for interpersonal chats.

Chewing on the end of his pencil, he tried not to count the rhythmic flashing of his workstation’s cursor, which matched the office clock beat for beat. He became acutely aware that everyone around him was still typing – he alone was waiting for output, for results. He hated to think that sitting idle, even for a good reason, would be judged a waste. Trying to control his suddenly shallow breaths, he placed the chewed pencil in his shirt pocket, straightened his tie, and glanced back at the screen.

Process Complete. 

Blinking in disbelief, he rubbed his eyes with weary fingers, but the message hadn’t changed. After countless trials – for truly he could not remember how long he had been laboring – he had found the answer,

A firm tap on his shoulder broke Travis from his celebratory reverie. “Let’s go,” his floor supervisor demanded flatly, with no more emotion than if he had strung any two random words together.” Penning something on his ever-ready clipboard, he turned, expecting Travis to follow him through the maze of desks.

The door to the boss’ office closed behind Travis, his supervisor remaining outside.

Two hours later someone new sat at Travis’ desk, furiously working on a new task, under the watchful face of the ever-ticking clock, the boss’ only words to her still resonating in her ear.

“Don’t waste my time.”

This short story was inspired by Terry Gilliam’s 2013 dystopian movie “the Zero Theorem.”