The Incumbent: Chapter 40

It's an intricate web of murder plots, government conspiracies and rampant tanning. Oh, and the future of the entire nation.

ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.

'All phones?' said the prime minister, somewhat alarmed at the prospect that the country was falling apart around him.

'Not all,' replied Holton-Lacey. 'Let's not exaggerate. Just all mobile phones. Fixed-line phones are working.' He suggested that people would adapt.

'If we can't get it fixed, people will see their dalliance with mobile technology as just another passing fad. Like the Rubik's Cube.'

Duff knew of the internet, but what he'd seen of it, he found disgusting.

Duff didn't realise the Rubik's Cube had gone out of fashion (he was still trying to finish one), but he did think that letting the network fall into such a state of disrepair seemed the height of incompetence, even for VastTel.

The prime minister picked up his PocketFriend 2050 and pressed the call button. There was a loud, continuous whirring noise at a frequency that could kill enough brain cells to remove the ability for reasoned thought, if you listened to it for long enough. He found the noise strangely comforting.

'The internet is intermittent,' said Holton-Lacey.

'The what?' said Duff. He knew of the internet, of course, but what he'd seen of it, he found disgusting.

Holton-Lacey moved the mouse on the prime minister's desk to reactivate his computer screen. It had been in sleep mode for the last 10 months. He went to the web browser to see if there was a connection. He wished he hadn't. It showed Duff's last-viewed pages.

'Well, that seems to be working,' he said, and turned the screen off, a little surprised and somewhat embarrassed.

'What about text messages?' Duff threw the question in quickly to deflect Holton-Lacey from thinking further about what he had just seen.

'Yes. Texts are still working as usual.' His reply was a little distant. He was wondering how anyone managed to get a horse into such a position.

When Holton-Lacey said texts were working normally, he was referring to what had become the accepted norm over the last few years. The messages went through, but you had no control over who they went to. Basically, recipients were randomly chosen, sometimes many thousands of them simultaneously receiving a single message. Phones were beeping all the time, offering arbitrary messages like 'how dare you?' or 'good idea' or 'what? In these shoes?'

'This is not good, is it?' said Duff, contemplating the breakdown of the network. 'We really are screwed.'

'Yes,' agreed Holton-Lacey, rather undiplomatically.

'I suppose if we employ incompetent people, this is what we expect.'

He knew the PM never read anything except the TV guide, and even then tended to lose interest around Tuesday.

'Interestingly, this is the fault of that youngster Jones,' said Holton-Lacey. 'We were worried that he was going to make the whole place too efficient.'

It was rather ironic; the smartest person to work in the company could also be the one who closed it down. And closure was looking like the only option. It was difficult to run a phone company without a network.

'We have little choice now, prime minister. We have to action the Redundancy Program.'

Duff was sick of hearing about Holton-Lacey's Redundancy Program. Why would it be any different to what Jones had been trying to do? Why would they want to go farther down that path?

'Then we can build this new phone company,' explained Holton-Lacey. 'We can use that as our new home for the unemployable.'

'And those people currently working for VastTel; what about them?' asked Duff.

Holton-Lacey looked at him hard. 'The Redundancy Program,' he said. 'You have read the Redundancy Program, haven't you?'

He knew full well that the prime minister never read anything except the TV guide, and even then he tended to lose interest around Tuesday.

'Of course,' said Duff, moving his hand over his mouth, making the lie even more obvious. He wished he had the power of concentration to read more than a couple of sentences at a time. As a politician, it was rarely needed, but sometimes, like now, it would have been useful.

'I suppose we'd better let the Cabinet know what's going on,' said Duff. He wasn't thinking clearly. They knew nothing of the VastTel situation. As far as they were concerned, the phone company was simply incompetent through its own doing, and the huge amounts of money the government paid to it was nothing more than a badly negotiated phone contract.

He yearned for the simple days, when he would send the police for pitched battles with striking workers at the dockyards.

'Perhaps now is the time to let them in on it,' suggested Duff.

'Sure,' said Holton-Lacey, 'if you want to commit political suicide.'

He didn't want to do that, of course. He needed to hang on until his retirement. Just the week before, he had looked at job advertisements out of curiosity, to see if there was anything he would be suitable for. It was an enormous reality check. He was prime minister for one reason only: he was incapable of doing anything else. But now, with the nation on the verge of a communications collapse, he wondered whether he could keep his job. What would become of him? He had little choice but to trust Holton-Lacey to do the right thing.

'Dammit,' said Duff, frustrated by the situation and stamping his hand on the table. He felt a sharp pain up his arm as he did it. 'Jones is responsible for all this. However did we let that happen?'

'I don't know, prime minister. But he is being replaced. At least in the interim. Until the Redundancy Program kicks in, and we can close the whole place down.'

'Can you find someone as incompetent as Buffet was?'

'I think so. We recruited someone just yesterday.'

'Well, I hope we got the right man this time.'

Duff stared at his empty coffee cup for a long while, deep in thought. Well, reasonably deep, at least for him. He was considering how complicated it was all getting: redundancy programs; a new phone company; and Holton-Lacey had spoken about the need to draft complicated new legislation to facilitate this new business that would somehow have to get through parliament. He yearned for the simple days, when he would send the police in for pitched battles with striking workers at the dockyards. Why did telecommunications have to be so complicated? Couldn't they have picked another industry in which to dump all these incompetent people? Would anyone notice if there were a thousand times as many life coaches, for example?

Duff was so lost in thought it was a while before he spoke again.

'So, where is this Jones character now?' he asked eventually.

'We've put him somewhere out of the way,' explained Holton-Lacey.

'Why don't we just sack him?'

That's why Duff should've read documents — just in case one of them advocated genocide...

'I'm afraid he might know too much. We don't want him out in the community talking to people.'

'So how are you going to stop that happening?'

'That's easy. We've put him in the only part of the business where there's no chance of him talking to anyone.'

'Really? Where's that?'

'We've put him in the call centre.'

Holton-Lacey was very pleased with his plan. No one in the call centre ever spoke to people outside the organisation. Their phone system's menu had been carefully designed to make sure that never happened. And Holton-Lacey's Redundancy Program would ensure that soon Jones, and everyone else at VastTel, wouldn't be around to talk to anyone ever again.

That's why Duff really should have read documents. Just in case one of them advocated genocide.

The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.


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