For a while, it seemed, the collapse of the nation's telecommunications network might be a good thing. Some people reacquainted themselves with nature. Admittedly, there were others who still wandered the streets looking lost, as if they had suddenly been transplanted into a different reality. They were in the midst of the real world, not the virtual reality where they had been spending most of their time. And frankly, they seemed a little disappointed with it. It was slow to move around, there weren't any interactive menus and a few complained that the graphics weren't very realistic.
Their disappointment was fairly short lived, however. Soon after the mobile network went down, the PocketPad 2000 came out. It was a new kind of mobile phone, or at least that's how the marketing spin went. 'So big it's hard to lose,' the advertisement announced, pointing to the big new screen and keyboard. It was the response to complaints about the earlier model, which was so small people were losing it up embarrassing orifices.
Having a phone on a network that didn't work was actually a big advantage.
With the new product, there was so much focus on the neat little applications you could download onto it that nobody seemed too concerned about the phone bit any more. In fact, an incoming call was an inconvenience that could interrupt you in the middle of a game of Rabid Monkeys. Having the phone on a network that didn't work was actually a big advantage.
'And we're offering it free on a 25-year plan,' Jimi Jones announced to the crowd, assembled in the VastTel conference hall.
There was a big round of applause, as examples of the PocketPad 2000 were passed amongst the eager attendees, from across multiple divisions of the newly downsized VastTel organisation.
'That seems to have gone down well,' said Musson, smiling and patting Jones on the back. 'Well done.'
Jones appreciated the kind words. They had been working together for several months now, and Jones was convinced the top job had been given to the right man. He was learning so much from him, and these days, he scarcely even considered the possibility that Musson might suddenly turn around and kill him in a fit of rage. Still, there's nothing like the threat that it could happen to keep a workforce on its toes.
Now, it was the chief executive's turn to take to the stage. There was a big round of applause, genuinely offered by all in the room.
'I am so proud to have Jimi Jones running our product division,' said Musson. 'With people like Jimi, this company will go from strength to strength.'
These days, he scarcely considered the possibility that Musson might suddenly kill him in a fit of rage.
There was another round of applause. Jones gave a little bow to the crowd, then turned to look at Musson. He hoped he wouldn't go on too long. It was close to 5 o'clock, and devoted as he was to his job, he was also enjoying his love life with Trisha Botherington. The passion hadn't died down yet, and he wanted to make the most of every hour he could with her. They spent an inordinate amount of time in the bedroom, but sometimes in the kitchen, often in the bathroom and occasionally in the last carriage on the city circle line. Most people who saw them socially commented on how happy they looked together, politely avoiding mention of how Trisha was also walking a bit funny lately.
'What an excellent few months,' said Musson. 'Customer satisfaction up, sales up, profit margins up. There's still room for improvement, but we're heading in the right direction.'
He was right that there was still a long way to go. In terms of customer satisfaction, they still only rated two on a scale of one to 10, were 10 was utopia and one was the equivalent of water boarding by a Saudi interrogation team. But even though they were offering appalling customer service, at least now they were doing it with a much smaller staff.
It was a fact that Duff had been made painfully aware of. Several times a week, Holton-Lacey would arrive in his office (or kitchen) with the latest set of unemployment statistics.
'It's just as we predicted,' said the finance minister. 'These people are not getting work anywhere else. In our modelling, we estimated that half would probably be able to get a job in real estate, some perhaps giving financial advice, but even that is not happening.'
Duff was still annoyed with Holton-Lacey — attempted genocide was difficult to forgive.
'I know,' said Duff, still annoyed with Holton-Lacey — attempted genocide was difficult to forgive — but he realised that right now, he needed him more than ever before.
'These people are completely unemployable.'
'That doesn't mean we should kill them,' Duff said quickly.
'No, I know,' said Holton-Lacey, holding his head down like a schoolboy reprimanded for hitting someone, or, in more liberal schools, for smoking cocaine in class rather than waiting for the morning break.
'I do think we need to revisit this idea of a new phone company,' said the prime minister. The more he thought about it, the more he realised there was no alternative. Too many people were on the dole, and, although the apps on their PocketFriend 2000s were keeping them occupied now, he knew the novelty would eventually wear off.
Holton-Lacey seemed excited that his strategy might be resurrected. In his initial plan, the new company would grow slowly, taking on the newly unemployed. Now, with his Redundancy Plan unsuccessful, thanks to Botherington's intervention, the new phone company would have to take on-board everyone retrenched from VastTel. That was millions of people.
'I'd like to see Musson's face when we launch this new company,' said Duff, keen to get back at the new CEO, who, despite his murder record, had been welcomed by the public, many who now held VastTel shares. The staff, those that remained, were pleased, too, because they got to be part of his bold new direction — he had introduced them all to the concept of making money — and the media saw him as an expert in his field. He was often called on by television producers to be a guest on top-rating shows, something that made Duff enormously envious.
'Yes. VastTel will struggle,' agreed Holton-Lacey. 'With all our government money, we can undercut them and take all their customers.'
The men were enjoying the camaraderie they'd had before Holton-Lacey had started killing people or sleeping with Duff's wife.
The two men laughed, enjoying the sort of camaraderie they'd enjoyed early in their working career, well before Holton-Lacey had started killing people or sleeping with Duff's wife — or, at least, before Duff got wind of it.
'We can sell the idea to the public as a bold new venture,' said the finance minister, pleased to have a big, new project to work on. 'Faster internet to every household.'
'Faster internet?' said Willis, his curiosity aroused. 'What exactly does that mean?'
Holton-Lacey hadn't really thought through the detail. All he knew was that many more people were using the internet, and around the world it seemed to be quite popular to make it go faster. Duff was worried if you made the internet too fast, then the people writing it wouldn't be able to keep up.
Days later, Holton-Lacey was out selling the concept to the people, hoping to get the support of the real leader of the nation, shock jock Adam Willis.
'How will you make the internet faster?' Willis asked.
'Good question,' said Holton-Lacey, ready to step into a territory he knew nothing about. 'It's all to do with the text, Adam. We are going to make the words shorter and use a much smaller typeface...'
'Good idea,' said Willis, and all of a sudden the population started to warm to the idea that a brighter telecommunications future lay ahead. Their phones might not be working now, but if they can hung on for eight to 10 years, they would all be functioning better than ever before, and words would be faster, too.
'People will be able to read a book in less than 15 seconds.'
'Excellent,' said Willis. 'I've always found books so tedious.' He knew his audience would be with him on that.
The plan was fitting neatly together. There was only one piece of the jigsaw left, and they would quickly see to that.
'Who are you?' screamed the on-duty nurse on the Not Particularly Intensive Care Ward at the Prince Edward Private Hospital the next morning.
'I'm the prime minister,' said Duff. He and Holton-Lacey had walked past the front desk, keen to avoid any scrutiny. They were on secret government business.
'I don't care whether you're the Sultan of bloody Brunei, you're not coming in here outside visiting hours!'
'This scheme can't fail. We have the staff, the CEO and a plan.'
Duff engaged the woman in conversation, whilst Holton-Lacey slipped past to a tiny private room at the end of the corridor. Inside was dark, except for the red lights from a heart monitor. It beeped every minute. The beeps were nothing to do with the patient's condition; it just reassured staff that they'd plugged it in.
The man strapped to the monitor was breathing slowly. It was the shallow rasp of someone who looked like he was on the last phase of his life. Every breath of air seemed harder than the last. His face was expressionless, his eyes fixed at a point in the ceiling.
'Do you remember me?' Holton-Lacey asked.
The man didn't even acknowledge his presence. The machine beeped, that was all.
'Raise your finger if you recognise me.' He moved his face into the path of the man's gaze and smiled brightly. The patient didn't even flinch. Holton-Lacey threw a fist in his direction, stopping just a few millimetres from the nose. Nothing happened.
'My god, you really are just an empty vessel, aren't you?' he said, and he left the man to return to where Duff was talking with the nurse. She seemed to be bending his ear about nurses' pay, and he was asking what she expected him to do about it.
'Well, you are the prime minister.'
It was a good point. Fortunately, Holton-Lacey came at the right time, just as he was losing the argument.
'Come on, let's go,' he said, and Duff happily followed him down the corridor.
'So, you saw him?'
'Yes, I did.'
'And is he up to the task?'
'I'd say so. He is the perfect man for the job.'
'Brilliant,' said the prime minister. 'This scheme can't fail. We have the staff, the CEO and a plan. Perhaps I should write it all down on a big sheet of paper.'
'No way,' said Holton-Lacey. 'I think we'll keep this one in our heads and try and avoid any documentation.'
'Thank God that Botherington woman went and got herself pregnant,' said Duff.
'Yes,' said Holton-Lacey. 'That will make life a bit easier.'
'And now we can show Sydney Musson who is really in charge.'
'We certainly will,' said Holton-Lacey, pleased with the way things had turned out.
Despite the best efforts of the public health system, it seemed he was on a full road to recovery...
The prime minister doubted he could ever forgive his finance minister for what he'd tried to do — slaughtering half your own people is something to be frowned on — but he did seem to have mellowed over the last few months. Perhaps they could work together again, just like the olden days. He knew with their new broadband network employing thousands, they'd soon regain control of the country.
'In years to come, when people are asked who was the greatest leader this county has ever known, what name will they say?' asked the prime minister, expecting his now more compliant finance minister to call out, 'Alvin Duff, of course.'
But he didn't. Holton Lacey paused for a moment. 'Er...'
There was an embarrassing silence. He'd forgotten his name again.
Back in the hospital room, the frail man had another guest. The visitor was almost luminescent, sending a strange orange glow across the darkened room. He moved over to the bed and placed his hand on the forehead of the comatose patient. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'I haven't forgotten. I've still got a job to do; I won't let you down.' The patient's hand twitched slightly, the first movement in weeks. Then, as the stranger tiptoed out the door, a smile slowly spread across his face and he managed to open one eye. Despite the best efforts of the public health system, it seemed he was on a full road to recovery.
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.