The Incumbent: Chapter 14

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.

It had been two weeks since young Jimi Jones had sat at a desk on level nine of the VastTel building and he was still no clearer as to what his job actually was. The fact that he had a job at all had been a complete coincidence and that the IT team had been so quick to connect him was a fluke in the extreme. Normally, it would take them months to set-up a new employee, thanks to cumbersome internal processes and the IT team's predilection for spending every waking hour playing computer games. Getting a mere mortal's computer fixed was a long way down the list for a man who spent his day battling dragons, killing aliens and hot-wiring cars.

They had all relocated to a different building, away from the rest of VastTel; a move made to eliminate the burden of constant contact with employees.

Several of the IT crowd had spent so long lost in a world of artificial reality that they'd forgotten about the real world altogether. Others would return occasionally, sometimes after a VastTel employee, desperate for IT support, had entered the same game to get help. The IT geek would be riding a horse across the rolling English countryside, clad in a shiny suit of armour, set to rescue Princess Genevieve from a rampaging dragon, who the US software writers had also made an Al-Qaeda operative just to broaden the market a bit, when Maureen from accounts would step out from behind an oak tree.

'I've rescued Genevieve, the dragon is dead, so get off your horse, get out of this game and fix my PC.'

Of course, the IT geek and Maureen from accounts were considerably more attractive in this artificial reality, so such encounters would invariably involve a little virtual sex before they returned to their desks.

Jimi Jones was focused firmly on reality, even though he wasn't quite sure what that reality involved, at least as far as his work life was concerned. Ever since he had landed the role he had been expecting a call from HR, declaring his appointment a huge mistake and asking if he could kindly leave the building and pay back his salary.

But HR was an elusive crowd at VastTel. He never would have found them that day he boldly decided to confront them over his application. They had all relocated to a different building, away from the rest of VastTel; a move made to eliminate the burden of constant contact with employees. Frequent demands from the workforce were taking their toll on the department, creating stress and reducing the opportunity to attend off-site seminars.

Attending seminars was a vital part of a HR manager's role. They'd half listen to management gurus who spoke at length about the patently obvious for an exorbitant appearance fee and the flow-on sales of books and associated merchandise. They would spout things like 'empowering individuals, to grasp their competencies and deliver focused results, with processes right-sized for the organisation'. People would nod in violent agreement as each supposed revelation was imparted to them, as though their own power of observation, in even its mildest form, had somehow evaporated the day they entered corporate life.

What she'd find was that his action plan involved drilling down on new territory ... taking her off the page and up and down his flagpole.

As well as a bit of money, these off-site conferences afforded the middle-aged speakers the added benefit of sleeping with young college graduates who, new to the corporate world, were naive enough to be impressed by the bull that was being spouted or, as the presenters would prefer to say, facilitated. At the end of the day, after a few drinks in the bar discussing his presentation on 'shifting the paradigm of paradigm shifting', the usually dyed-blonde botoxed speaker, dressed in a black skivvy with black jeans, would offer the youngest recruit to the HR department the chance to workshop some ideas in his bedroom, so they could ensure they were on the same page. What she'd find was that his action plan involved drilling down on new territory, where he would use all his bells and whistles to ensure their bodies were aligned on a level playing field, taking her off the page and up and down his flagpole. The young recruit, perhaps uneasy with the experience, would be told to 'consider it an example of change management', whilst recognising that, after several beers, he was not necessarily delivering a best-of-breed service.

Sometimes the young girls of the HR department, on realising how they had been violated, would start a formal complaint procedure, but they were rarely successful. Having been impregnated with the seed of psycho-babble the young recruit would find it impossible to speak succinctly, so no one had the attention span to comprehend the nature of the complaint. And nine months after each convention a baby was born, or 'a new deliverable' as they preferred to term them. This HR in-breeding ensured a new generation, hard-wired with the innate ability to talk corporate bullshit.

Jimi Jones knew nothing of such events. His days had been spent browsing the company intranet to find out not only what he was supposed to be doing, but what anyone else in the company was up to. There seemed to be little evidence of anything going on anywhere.

He was hoping his payslip, which arrived at the end of his second week, would at least contain a job title. It did, but it wasn't particularly helpful. All it said was 'Grade 3 manager', which gave very little away. He was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that his job did provide a rather healthy middle-management salary. He quickly decided it was such an impressive figure that there was little point in raising his profile by asking questions. So he behaved exactly like anyone in a middle management role in a large company, he took the salary and kept his head down, hoping people would forget he worked there.

People were keen to impress him and show the failings of others in their stampede for better jobs paying slightly more money, with far more impressive job titles.

The payslip was the first time he had received any form of correspondence at VastTel with his name on it. Sure, he'd been copied in on a lot of emails. That was to be expected. It was essential business practice that each email was circulated to as wide a group as possible, particularly if you had something intelligent to say and you had the misguided impression that 700 of your colleagues would be impressed by it.

Jones received a lot of these emails — after all, he was a fairly senior person in the organisation. People were keen to impress him and show the failings of others in their stampede for better jobs paying slightly more money, with far more impressive job titles. Besides these emails there had been no contact with anyone.

That was to change, though. His first real exchange with a fellow human being, apart from nervous glances from those in adjacent cubicles, came when a young voice, a girl who sounded about 11, called to ask him where he was.

'It's the work-in-progress meeting Mr Jones,' she said. 'Level 9 meeting room.'

'This is it,' Jones had thought. He assumed his number was up. He would be asked what he had done and he hadn't done anything. New to the corporate world, he assumed doing nothing wasn't enough to justify his salary.

As it turned out he needn't have worried. At VastTel the work-in-progress meeting, or WIP for people who like three-letter acronyms (or TLAs as they are otherwise known) was where the boss of a particular division begrudgingly got together with his (occasionally her) staff, who he never generally talks to, and asked them for an update on whatever it is they were doing. The boss rarely listened, but felt his ineffectual position in the company was somehow justified because, even if he achieved nothing else in the week, he at least had a WIP meeting where, it seemed, most people were busy doing something or other.

And so it was with some trepidation that Jones walked into the meeting room on Level 9, a nondescript area, filled with a 10-seat, cheap mahogany-veneer table. The table left little room for anything else, yet an extra dozen or so chairs had been somehow crammed in, together with eight pale VastTel employees, most in polo shirts with the corporate logo on the sleeve.

They had been sitting quietly, concentrating on their fingernails, when Jones walked in. A few acknowledged his existence fleetingly as he entered, then glances were exchanged as he grabbed a seat at the side of the table. There was a larger seat, reserved for executives in Grade 3 positions, which Jones had deliberately avoided. He assumed it was meant for his boss who was yet to arrive.

One of the benefits of a Grade 3 role at VastTel was the right to a swivel chair with adjustable arm rests and a tilt function. The higher Grade 2 position afforded a greater tilt angle and a moveable neck rest, with a personal colour choice. Those gathered in the room were curious as to why Jones had chosen a Grade 5 seat, with a wobbly backrest that could only be fixed with the Allen key issued on your first day.

For what seemed an eternity the group sat in silence, but over time people were increasingly looking towards Jones.

'I'm new,' he said eventually.

'We know, sir,' said one man, much more than twice Jones' age. There was an element of resentment in his manner which Jones initially found hard to fathom; so much bitterness and umbrage all packed in to just a few words. He wondered why this older man seemed to be treating him as his senior, then it clicked.

'Right,' said Jones, 'got it! You people all work for me.' He hoped he'd got it right, otherwise he would have sounded like a right little upstart. But his assessment was spot on. This man, he reasoned, hated having a young boss. Poor bastard.

'Excellent deduction, sir,' said the bitter fifty-something, sarcastically.

'So,' said Jones, trying to swivel slightly before realising it wasn't a function of a Grade 5 chair. The back rest gave way a little more, forcing him to lie back rather uncomfortably. He decided instead to sit forward and not use the back rest at all. It was a bad move, as the chair shot from underneath him and he tumbled on to the floor. He stood up quickly and kicked the dilapidated chair out of the way.

'So I'm in charge?' he said quickly.

'Of course,' said the prepubescent girl, who had called him earlier.

'That's just great!' thought Jones. Not only did he not know what he was supposed to be doing, he now had a team of nine people he was responsible for and he didn't have a clue what they should be doing either. Perhaps he could use this meeting to find out a little more, but first he needed to fix his chair.

'Does anyone have an Allen key?' he asked.

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.