The Incumbent: Chapter 41

Summary: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.

The VastTel call centre was in meltdown. It seems people weren't prepared to give up on mobile technology just yet, and they were angry that those neat little smartphones they were used to weren't so smart anymore. In effect, they had become nothing more than elaborate time pieces, although some of the games downloaded from the internet still worked.

Nonetheless, people were angry. Some were locking themselves away in their houses. They only dared to venture out in public when they were using them. It was the easiest way of avoiding conversations with strangers. Most felt naked without their phones, and only a few exhibitionists walked out with their ears left exposed. Others wore burqas they had bought off the internet.

The disruption was being felt most at the VastTel call centre; the automated voice-response system had never dealt with so much traffic.

Most felt naked without their phones; only a few exhibitionists walked out with their ears exposed.

'You have been placed in a queue,' it said, over and over to nearly a quarter of the country's population, before adding, 'your estimated wait time is 24 years, 123 days, 7 hours and 24 minutes.'

Under normal circumstances, the software would play a couple of recorded announcements to try to answer questions about common problems. For example, it might say, 'if you live in Brisbane, there are some outages on our broadband network. These should be fixed by a week on Thursday', in the vain hope that the inconvenienced people of Brisbane would happily hang up, knowing that eventually VastTel would get around to fixing the issue. A common message was, 'If you have a BlackCurrant phone, living in Northern Sydney, you might need to stand on your roof to receive reception. This error will be rectified early next year, or when you get a new phone. Or when you move house.' The announcement had remained unchanged for three years already.

The list of common problems could go on for 10 minutes or so, gradually becoming more and more specific.

'If you are Mr Jones of 22 Acacia Avenue, Willoughby, your phone bill is overdue and we're sending a man round to disconnect you.'

Only after a number of these announcements had been played would the system eventually confess, 'Our entire mobile phone network has broken and we're not quite sure how to fix it. If you've got any bright ideas, please press 1.'

The announcements had been designed to give the impression that VastTel was actively fixing things. If they played enough of them and kept people waiting long enough, the assumption was that they would eventually hang up, hopefully before malnutrition set in. Instead, of course, all they did was make callers angry. They might have been upset that their phone wasn't working, but the experience of VastTel customer service was enough to tip them over the edge, much as it had done to Sydney Musson.

Hence, it was extremely rare that anyone ever got through to an agent in the call centre. The union had deemed customer contact as being too stressful, and the VastTel managers saw their point of view. Jimi Jones had been surprised that after two hours in the room, he hadn't heard a single phone ring.

'Our entire phone network has broken and we're not sure how to fix it. If you've got any bright ideas, please press 1.'

He had planned to visit the call centre as a morale-boosting exercise for the workers. It was the sort of thing good bosses did; a way of saying, 'Look, my salary might be 100 times what you earn, and you might only ever see me once every two years and, yes, there's every chance I'd sign the paperwork to sack you if budgets got tight, but I just want you to know I'm thinking of you. What's your name, by the way?'

But Jones wasn't in the call centre as any kind of morale boost. He was agent number 745, sitting at the 14th desk along from the window in the 23rd row. His promise to remain steadfastly in the top job had lasted just a few hours. The board had curiously bowed to Woodburner's pressure, and he had arrived at work to find a cardboard box on his desk, already filled with his personal possessions. Natalie was in tears. She was sad to lose a boss who had taken the time to remember her name, and, like many people, she felt uncomfortable with all the sudden changes happening around her. This was VastTel — nothing ever changed at VastTel.

'Is it the phone network?' Jones had asked her as he headed to the door. 'Do you think that's what's behind this?' If it was, he could accept his fate. He had to admit, the complete collapse of their mobile infrastructure, which now consisted of nothing more than several thousand useless phone towers (all incapable of delivering phone calls, but still able to emit radiation into nearby schoolyards), all under his watch, was certainly a sackable offence.

'I don't know if that's the reason,' Natalie had said, 'but I did see the prime minister arriving last night to talk with Mr Woodburner.'

Jones was impressed that she knew who the prime minister was. He was sure he wouldn't recognise him or her. But he was curious why the holder of the highest office in the land would be talking to a VastTel board member, particularly a little s*** like Woodburner. He wondered if their conversation had anything to do with his sudden demotion. He was determined to look into it.

Topics: Telcos


Phil Dobbie has a wealth of radio and business experience. He started his career in commercial radio in the UK and, since coming to Australia in 1991, has held senior marketing and management roles with Telstra, OzEmail, the British Tourist Authority and other telecommunications, media, travel and advertising businesses.

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