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The Incumbent: Chapter 31

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

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.

After the radio show, Musson was taken away in an ambulance. Willis asked his listeners what he should do with a man who had pulled out a gun with intent to use it. The audience was split between capital punishment and castration, their standard response to most crimes. It provided for a lively debate in the last half of his program, during which Musson was smuggled out the back of the building for his own safety. From there, the ambulance hurried him back to the relative peace of Double Bay.

As his psychiatrist, Whimplestein should probably have gone with him, but he'd had enough of psychopaths for one day. Instead, he left the 2IQ building with Woodburner and Jimi Jones. They shared a cab back to the VastTel headquarters. Woodburner was particularly keen to talk to Jones; the explosion had left a gaping hole in the organisation, as well as in the south-facing wall of the building. The CEO position needed to be filled as quickly as possible, and, as far as Woodburner was concerned, Jones was the only person who had shown any initiative, ever, even if he wasn't quite sure what it was he did.

'Look, I want you to take on the top job,' he said, 'at least as a stand-in whilst Buffet recovers.'

Young Jimi Jones was, of course, astonished. After all, he was only 21. People had worked in the organisation for 50 years and still only made it one or two rungs up the corporate ladder. All of a sudden, he was being catapulted to the top of the 15-tier management structure in one fell swoop. Part of him wanted to say no — it was a big responsibility that was likely to intrude on his youthful ambitions that were largely focused around parties and sex, and how he'd like to start getting invitations to either. But there was also the curiosity of what such a magnificent role might entail, and, more importantly, what sort of chair he'd have.

There was the curiosity of what such a magnificent role might entail, and, more importantly, what sort of chair he'd have.

'If he doesn't recover, we can look at giving you the full-time gig,' Woodburner continued.

'But maybe he'll never recover,' interjected Whimplestein. Woodburner looked at him sternly. He didn't appreciate the interruption.

'I should imagine they've taken him to the Prince Edward Private Hospital,' the psychiatrist continued, 'and I understand he's highly allergic to penicillin.'

Jones wondered why he was being offered this information, and why the psychiatrist was now offering him a small bottle and a syringe.

'And if that doesn't work, try peanuts,' added Woodburner.

Surely they weren't advising him on how to finish Buffet off? They didn't think he was that desperate for the top job? Nobody would resort to such brutal measures, would they? He was, of course, very young and unaware of the ways of the corporate world.

It was with this woeful lack of experience that the very next day, Jones was installed, with very little fanfare or ceremony, as the third chief executive officer of VastTel. It was an impressive step up for a graduate who had spent his entire working life, of just a few months, totally unsure of what he was supposed to be doing.

In theory, his lack of experience provided the perfect continuity from his predecessor, who had been through his entire working life unsure of what he should be doing, and had, therefore, done nothing. Unfortunately for the government, Jones wasn't going to continue that tradition. He saw his appointment as an opportunity to drive change; to make the company efficient, competitive and profitable. This could be his big chance to make a name for himself. If he was heading up the biggest company in the country at 21, he could be prime minister by 30. He considered it a real possibility. After all, so far, none of it seemed particularly difficult.

If he was heading up the biggest company in the country at 21, he could be prime minister by 30. None of it seemed particularly difficult.

He was, of course, treading a dangerous path. The Duff government — and Holton-Lacey, in particular — would not take such ambition lying down. Jones didn't realise how he was putting his life in great danger, assuming the secret service could figure out how to operate a ZX240-G rocket launcher. And so, he quickly threw himself into his new role, blissfully unaware of the government's involvement in the business.

'Natalie,' he said through the intercom to his personal assistant, who was sitting outside, reading the first issue of Hot Flush, a magazine she had mistakenly assumed was aimed at middle-aged women, but instead was filled with classified advertisements for toilet bowls and cisterns. She was surprised to have a new boss who actually knew her name. She sometimes had difficulty remembering it herself, it was used so rarely.

'Can you organise a meeting with all my direct reports to start in an hour?' he asked. He'd been at work for less than an hour himself, but he was keen to get up to speed with what everyone was up to.

'I'm not sure I can organise a venue in so short a time.'

'We'll just use the boardroom,' he said. He'd seen it that morning as he walked into his office. There was an impressive, polished mahogany table, and some very interesting chairs that he was keen to try out. Although he doubted they could beat the Grade 1 Chair that he was sitting on. It was similar to a first-class airline seat, with a total recline capability and a full in-flight entertainment system built in.

'Well, Mr Buffet used to always use the main ballroom at the Hodbrook Hotel,' said Natalie.

Jones had been to the Hodbrook. The ballroom was huge.

'Won't the boardroom do?' he asked.

'I'll try for the Hodbrook,' she insisted. 'They can fit 200 people easily.'

'It's only for my direct reports,' he reminded her.

'And there are 200 of them,' she said.

Jones fell back in his chair. It reclined completely, made a tiny 'bing' noise, and the lights dimmed. He spent several minutes looking for a lever to return to the upright position, at one point causing an oxygen mask to fall down from the ceiling.

'Two hundred people. What do they all do?'

Natalie could hardly hear him. He had fallen back a long way from the intercom. No matter; she said she would do her best to get everyone together. He insisted that it happen that day, even though an emergency meeting like this would normally be called with at least two weeks' notice, to give people a chance to turn up to work or travel back from their spurious 'study tours' in Europe. A sudden meeting like this could only have, at best, half the team attending. Even they would have to be dragged from local cinemas or pulled off the golf course.

On paper, at least, the VastTel senior management team seemed like an impressive group of people. Many had held senior roles before, although it should be noted that a large proportion came from the television and advertising industries, so they were of limited use to society. They did help the economy, though, by spending their exaggerated salaries on expensive cars, big houses and useless things from those direct mail catalogues that sell everything from weather vanes to authentic leather banana holders. When they became retrenched, the government would quickly move these people to a senior role at VastTel, so as to maintain their spending levels.

Not all came from high-paying jobs, however. Some were just eligible for so many government handouts that it was actually cheaper to give them a good job at VastTel. The head of Mobile Devices, for example, was a former bricklayer from Sydney's west, who had been on far too many handouts, having ruptured himself attempting to conceive his fourteenth child.

The head of Mobile Devices was a former bricklayer who had been on far too many handouts, having ruptured himself attempting to conceive his fourteenth child.

So far, the VastTel scheme had worked. People were paid money, did very little, but helped to keep money moving around the economy. Occasionally, a new appointee would accept the role and diligently turn up for work and even attempt to make business decisions. This was, of course, discouraged by other members of the senior management team. Instead, they were given smart new mobile phones and taught how to spend their days micro blogging, the easiest way to distract anyone from getting on with something useful.

Finding out what 200 senior executives were up to was a big challenge for a single meeting. Jones decided to spend the intervening time seeing what he could discover on the corporate intranet and in his predecessor's email inbox. He assumed each of his reports would have each filed weekly reports, and there would be various statistical dashboards to help him see how different elements of the corporation were performing, although a glance at the computer gave him some doubts. The machine looked like a museum piece, and there was a thick layer of dust covering the keyboard. Clearly, it hadn't been touched for years. Still, he flicked it on and waited for the familiar Brian Eno-composed notes that normally told you that your computer would be ready any day now, just as soon as it has finished downloading 47 updates off the net.

But that didn't happen. In fact, it loaded very quickly. First, the screen was black; then, a few numbers flashed up to tell him he had 512 megabytes of storage space and 8 megabytes of memory. Then the 'a:>' prompt appeared.

'DOS!' said Jones, who had read about the days when computers needed to be programmed to do anything, and were, by and large, useless. Or was that Vista?

'DOS!' said Jones, who had read about the days when computers needed to be programmed to do anything, and were, by and large, useless. Or was that Vista?

'Mr Buffet never used that thing,' said Natalie, who came in to the office with a pot of tea and a selection of biscuits. Jones had never seen such an assortment. It was one of the key performance indicators foisted on her by someone in human resources, who had been to a conference on employee measurement, and thought it should be implemented across the whole organisation. It never got beyond Natalie, and even then she had just the one indicator, related to the timely delivery of tea and biscuits. Her performance appraisal last year had focused largely on the need to improve the ratio of chocolate biscuits in the selection, and to dunk the teabag for just a few seconds longer.

'I think he got it the day he started, and he never turned it on,' she said, offering the use of her machine. 'I rarely use it myself,' she confessed. 'And besides, I've got to go shopping. We're almost out of custard creams.'

He took Natalie up on the offer and sat at her small desk outside his rather palatial one, while she tottered off down the corridor in a pair of heels that would be a similar vintage to Buffet's old computer.

There were a few hours to go before his 200 or so direct reports gathered at the Hodbrook Hotel. Rather frustratingly, he lost half that time while Natalie's computer uploaded its software updates, including a rather belated fix for the Y2K bug.

He didn't have time to wait for the computer to gradually bring itself into the 21st century, so he cancelled the downloads, and soon after a very early version of Windows loaded. As it turned out, it wasn't a smart move. The computer harboured a myriad of viruses, including one particularly ferocious one that had been waiting patiently to be reconnected to the outside world. This ancient piece of malware had been activated when someone had opened an email promising racy shots of Raquel Welch, taken many, many years before she hit menopause.

Not that viruses were anything new at VastTel. They were spreading all the time, making machines operate progressively slower. In most companies, this would have been seen as a bad thing. They might even go as far as trying to eradicate them. But at VastTel, as computers got slower, everyone just adjusted their working speed accordingly. The company was literally grinding to a halt, and no one seemed to notice or care.

Jones had noticed, and it was driving him mad, but for now he was content to simply find his predecessor's email account and get up to speed on whatever projects had been keeping him busy.

He'd have to work quickly, though. Already, the Raquel Welch virus was deleting content on the hard drive, and starting to work its way across the organisation. Next time anyone turned on their computer, all their files and emails would have vanished, killing off minutes, in some cases hours, of work. And VastTel had a policy of not backing up work, because: a) there was hardly any work to back-up; and b) no one really knew how to do it.

While some of the more recent emails were being eaten away by Raquel Welch, Jones was finding many of the older emails particularly interesting, including a consultancy report from Whitlam, Beevis & Hogsbreath, marked 'Highly Confidential. Not to be read by anyone.' The confidentiality clause had been placed on the report by the consultants themselves, who advised that nobody at VastTel was ready for these sorts of findings, and, consequently, the report should not be read by anyone, even — in fact, particularly — the CEO. It looked like the recommendation had been adopted. The hefty consultancy fee had been paid, and no one had read beyond this front-page suggestion. It was the first time any recommendation from a consultant had been adopted by the phone company.

The consultants advised that the report should not be read by anyone, particularly the CEO. It was the first time any recommendation had been adopted by VastTel.

Jones decided to read more.

'Recommendation one: that you do not read this report. You might find the results disturbing.'

'Recommendation two: that at least three quarters of the VastTel workforce are instantly retrenched. There is no evidence that they provide any benefit to the corporation. It doesn't matter which three quarters you choose.'

'Recommendation three: that the entire executive team is replaced.'

'Recommendation four: if recommendation three is untenable, that the company moves out of telecommunications altogether and focuses on something simpler, like running a florist shop.'

'Recommendation five: that's just one shop. I don't think you could manage the complexity of a chain.'

It was certainly a damning report. From what Jones had already experienced, it didn't come as a total revelation. Nor was it a surprise that no one had read beyond the front page. Even if they'd wanted to, there were so many reports produced each day, each paid for based on their weight. Sometimes they were given a cursory glance, to check that the consultants hadn't tried to pull a fast one by including a lot of blank pages, or including photocopied sections from the phone directory, but none were ever read in full.

Consultants knew this, which is why the author of the Whitlam, Beevis & Hogsbreath report felt able to write in paragraph four, page 48, 'is anyone actually reading this?' before exploring the notion eight pages later that the senior executive team members at VastTel were a 'bunch of c***-sucking wankers'. The final four chapters of the document were lifted ad verbatim from AA Milne's 1928 children's classic, The House at Pooh Corner.

The final four chapters of the document were lifted ad verbatim from AA Milne's 1928 children's classic, 'The House at Pooh Corner'.

It was clear to Jones that there hadn't been any control whatsoever in the organisation. That had to change. And he had the youthful confidence to believe that he was the man (just) who could bring about that change. It would be a difficult task, but he was determined to start right away, at his senior team meeting. Well, almost straight away. The meeting was already getting off to a late start. Natalie wasn't back from her shopping trip. She had visited seven stores trying to find custard creams, which she desperately needed — she was three packets off reaching her annual performance-related pay bonus.

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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