The Incumbent: Chapter 20

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.

'I'm here to give a quarterly update,' said Jimi Jones, standing somewhat timidly in front of the VastTel board. It was the moment he had been dreading. He assumed they would be expecting great things from the newly appointed head of one of the larger divisions of the company.

Jones' profuse underarm sweating had now trickled down his sides and gathered around his groin, drenching his khaki chinos.

He had thought about admitting straight away that he was given his job through a monumental administrative cock-up. Perhaps they'd appreciate his honesty and keep him on, just a few rungs down the corporate ladder. In fact, that was his intention right up to the moment he walked into the room and saw the assembled directors and company executives. Then he started to question whether any of them would be paying any attention to what he had to say. Several were dozing off, one or two were daydreaming and the rest were feverishly tapping away on their PocketFriend 2050s. Perhaps he would get away with his alternate plan, which was to use lots of words, but say nothing.

He had rehearsed many times saying things like, 'we have seen a 15 per cent increase in performance across a balanced scorecard, indexed against 2004 levels, seasonally adjusted'. He had, scribbled on his left arm, words and phrases like 'fiscal' and 'amortised' and 'net present value', which he could throw in periodically just for effect.

Directly opposite Jones sat Ponceby Smythe, the oldest member of the board and the only one present who looked like he was listening to every word being said in the room. But looks can be deceptive. He'd actually lapsed into a coma during the CFO's report and would be dead by the close of the meeting. The death, incidentally, was not minuted and Smythe was kept on the board for several more months until the smell became unbearable.

If Jones was going to take his second approach he needed to look convincing. He had a few meaningless graphs on spreadsheets ready to show, just in case. Deciding this was the right direction to take, he plugged his laptop computer into a projector that sat in the middle of the board table. The light shone across the room, bounced off the chairman's extensive forehead, onto a pull-down screen that, through many years of lengthy management presentations, was stained a shade of yellow akin to the urine of a very dehydrated person.

Jones nervously pressed the F5 function key to switch the image onto the projector screen. But nothing happened. It worked everywhere else, but the VastTel IT team had configured the board room equipment differently, but forgot to tell anyone. Panicking a little, Jones pressed F5 and the Alt key together. The screen remained yellow. He tried Shift and Alt and F5, but nothing happened. Then Caps Lock, Control, Shift and F5. No change. Then he attempted a 10-finger manoeuvre, pressing the Shift, Caps Lock, Alt, Tab and F5 key with one hand, Num Lock, Tab, Insert, Page Down and Control with the other, first simultaneously, then one after another in each of several hundred possible combinations.

'I'm sorry about this,' he said nervously as he worked through the alternatives. He could feel sweat dripping from his forehead, and from his armpits and down his back.

Tab, Escape, Backspace, Function, Control, F5 didn't work.

Neither did Shift, Space, Enter, Insert, F5.

Caps Lock, Escape, Backspace, Insert, opened his web browser and took it to a gay porn site that he had never seen before, and only then did his desktop momentarily appear on the projector screen before Jones managed to rip out the chord and shut down the projector and his laptop simultaneously. He did it so quickly no one had seen it. Smythe did twitch slightly, but that was just the early onset of rigor mortis.

'Look, we're in a bit of a hurry,' said Twistie Buffet, feeling obliged to help out one of his young managers in a moment of clear distress. 'Why don't you dispense with your presentation and give us your report verbally,' he offered.

It wasn't ideal, but Jones had little choice. All he could do was spout some words and hope for the best. A slow walk over to the podium in the corner of the room bought him a few seconds' grace, but the accompanying silence only raised the interest from those board members that were still awake, or alive.

Jones' profuse underarm sweating had now trickled down his sides and gathered around his groin, drenching his khaki chinos. It hadn't gone unnoticed in the room. Yet Jones managed to hide his fear behind a presence that, miraculously, showed extreme confidence. He didn't realise it, but he'd won the admiration of the board even before he started, although some were alarmed by his evident lack of control over his urinary tract and a note was made in the minutes that, as a minimum requirement, younger managers should be toilet trained before being elevated to senior ranks.

At last Jones started to speak. 'Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,' he said, before realising that there were no women on the board. He didn't know much about corporate Australia, so he had wrongly assumed that women would be on boards as well as geriatric men. His naive introduction was heard by no one, however, because the podium microphone was not turned on.

Realising his mistake Jones looked down and saw two red buttons. He pressed one and spoke, to no effect. So he pressed the second and, after a little acoustic feedback, causing half the board to reach for their hearing aids, he could at last be heard. Again this commotion had drawn more attention to his speech and there was a real possibility that some of the board would actually be listening. In fact, one or two now believed that this young man had something intelligent to say, perhaps even useful. It was precisely what Jones didn't want to happen.

He banged his fist firmly on the lectern as he spoke as though he was some great orator ready to send his army into battle against the infidels.

Of equal concern was the function of the first red button he pressed. While it didn't make the microphone audible in the room, it had started to record everything he said, and was streaming it across the VastTel intranet, so every employee could, if they were at work that day, listen in live to the goings on from the boardroom. Jones wasn't far into his speech before word got around and a significant proportion of the company had tuned in. Few people had ever had the opportunity to hear the goings on of a VastTel board meeting and now was their chance.

'Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you today,' he said, as the board sat quietly, their PocketFriend 2050s all resting on the table untouched.

'This has been a good quarter for my small part of VastTel. We've seen figures up 20 per cent on an annualised basis, even more in some segments. Other indicators look strong, despite the weakening economy and the net present value of our fiscal annuities, amortised consistently along a moving average of discreet assets and extraordinary items.'

There was a growing look of confusion around the board table. They didn't have a clue what he was talking about, which had been taken as meaning that he must be incredibly smart. The confusion was over how VastTel had managed to recruit someone of such calibre.

But Jones took the looks of confusion to mean that he'd been sprung; that the board had realised he didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He decided to keep away from any talk of his non-existent financials, and instead focus on the company and his workforce.

'So what's the key to our success?' he said, pausing a while, wondering how he was going to answer his own question. He wished he hadn't even asked it.

'To be honest, success comes from my team. It's their commitment, their passion, their determination and their…' He stopped and looked down for a moment. He was running out of platitudes. 'And their sensible shoes,' he said eventually, grimacing. It was the best he could come up with under pressure. Still, he was slowly starting to pick up speed.

'You know, this is a great company. The best I have ever worked for, ' not an unsurprising statement coming from a 21-year-old, 'where magnificent people want to bring positive change for the good of all the people in this magnificent country of ours.'

It sounded a bit over the top, he thought, but he noted that some of the board were starting to warm to his speech. They'd never considered looking at VastTel in such a positive light before.

'This is a difficult time for VastTel,' he continued. 'New competitors, government regulations and a public with heightened expectations. Unrealistic expectations many would say. But I say, let us rise to the challenge!'

He banged his fist firmly on the lectern as he spoke as though he was some great orator ready to send his army into battle against the infidels.

'Let us stop this stagnation of VastTel now. We are too good to stand still; too good to give away what we have fought to achieve; too good not to use every ounce of the passion within our bodies to achieve the best that we can possibly hope for — for ourselves, our customers and for our country.'

It was rousing stuff. There was a patter of applause. One board member nudged Smythe with a look of agreement, causing him to slump a little to the left and for his tongue to hang out of his mouth.

'Let me say this to you today,' Jones continued, nodding to each of the board one by one, his index finger raised high in the air. 'This is the year we do not sit down. This is the year we remind people of why we are proud to be VastTel, a company that has delivered to generation after generation of Australians, offering freedom to talk, a freedom given by our parents and grandparents, many of whom worked for this company and made sacrifices to build the VastTel we see today.'

Across the company, right across the country, an audience had built up online as workers, who generally spent their day on the internet looking for something to do, were listening in and had become enthralled by what they heard. With tears in their eyes they unexpectedly felt proud of their company. Jones had ignited a desire to work hard and deliver results that had never existed at any point in VastTel's entire history.

'Today we start a new chapter,' said Jones, noting the eager looks around the room and now lost in his own deluded grandeur. 'This is where the journey begins. Right now. A journey along which we work hard, have faith in the commitment, drive and capabilities of our fellow workers, and share a mission to build a really great company that offers unending freedoms to our customers, to change their lives in ways they could never imagine.'

He was reaching fever pitch.

'As of today our mission is to make all Australians glad that this country is home to VastTel, the most amazing corporation in the world!'

He stopped there. There was a slight pause, in the boardroom and at workstations across the country. Jones had no idea what he had done. A warm glow now embraced the entire corporation and with it a spirit to do more. Word spread quickly and, as more and more people listened back to the audio, one by one they vowed to do as he had asked; to work harder, out of pride and a patriotic commitment to one of the country's biggest companies and the opportunity to make so many peoples' lives so much better.

The young man pressed the red switch to turn off the microphone, as the board rose from their chairs to applaud his astonishing performance.

'Hear, hear,' they cried. 'Excellent work…,' one of them said, intending to add Jones' name before realising he didn't have a clue who he was or where he came from.

The ovation continued for some time and, blushing slightly, Jones returned from his euphoric state and, landing back on earth, he decided to make a quick exit. The directors and executives continued to applaud as he headed for the door.

He liked his workforce comatose because they were easier to control.

He had impressed almost everyone. All except three people: Smythe, who was dead, the CFO and the CEO. Zorblestein had tried to lip read, but was very bad, but he had made a mental note to look into what fiscal annuities were, particularly those that had been amortised consistently along a moving average of discreet assets and extraordinary items. The rest, he figured, was largely to do with emotion and, as he worked in finance, he assumed it had nothing to do with him.

Buffet had never been sucked in by motivational speakers and was concerned what influence this young man could have on the finely balanced culture of the company. Motivation was not something he particularly welcomed. He liked his workforce comatose because they were easier to control. When you're in charge of such a big group of people you have to be careful of the herd mentality. He was glad that at least the speech was only heard by the old stodgers on the board. It was important, he thought, that the workforce at large were kept out of the harmful reach of ambition.

So he was horrified, soon after, to discover that the entire workforce had heard the speech and was motivated by it. More concerning was the mistaken belief by everyone that he was the man who had delivered it. Word had got round that VastTel was headed by one of the greatest, motivational leaders of our times.

'Well done sir,' they would say, whenever he passed people in the corridor. Previously he had gone unnoticed, but now people had gone to the trouble of finding out his name and what he looked like.

Buffet had always preferred to keep a low profile, but he had to admit, after a very short time, he was starting to enjoy this newfound appreciation. He'd never been admired before, except when he was a baby, and even then it had worn off by the second day.

The board knew the truth, of course, and were starting to question their selection of company head. Woodburner in particular had been very impressed with Jones' performance. 'Here was young executive talent that had the power to change the direction of this bumble-along company,' he had thought, believing that this was the man who should be sitting in the CEO's office. He just needed to fast-track the toilet training.

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.