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The Incumbent: Chapter 41

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.

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.

In the relative quiet of the call centre, he had the time to start exploring the corporate intranet further. Even though he was at the bottom of the VastTel hierarchy, he still had the same network rights as the CEO. It would take the IT department weeks to remove his access to email accounts, documents, directories — all the entitlements of the company chief.

The fact that Jones had been the company's first computer-literate chief executive explains why he had found a plethora of documents that should have alarmed any of his predecessors. There was the Whitlam, Beevis & Hogsbreath report that Trisha Botherington had reported on. Another similar report from a year ago was called 'How to Cut Costs by Completely Removing the First 12 Tiers of Management with No Detrimental Effect Whatsoever'. Another showed how the company could reduce further occurrence of bad debt by getting rid of one customer who currently owed the company $14 billion.

One report was: 'How to Cut Costs by Completely Removing the First 12 Tiers of Management with No Detrimental Effect Whatsoever'.

But the most significant finding, as he trawled through the archives, was an official-looking document titled 'Government Telecommunications Policy Number 127'. It sounded like a particularly dry piece of text, and Jones almost skipped right past it as a favour to his brain, but, for some reason, he had second thoughts, and decided to have a look. What he found was startling.

It was an official internal government document, and he'd never seen one before, so he downloaded it and printed it out. It somehow seemed more official when he saw it on paper.

The document had the Department of Treasury logo at the top of each page, a distinctive emblem comprising a kangaroo who appeared to be smiling, with a wad of cash stuffed into her pouch. Underneath, there was something that looked Latin, but which was actually a random selection of letters selected by the design agency.

The opening sentence said it all. 'Estimates now place the proportion of the workforce employed by VastTel at close to 72 per cent. Many more are employed in support services for VastTel and its staff, in the fields of psychiatry and the production of corporate T-shirts and high-waist-banded trousers. The remaining 20 per cent of the population are gainfully employed in mining, manufacturing and a myriad of other productive causes, or in finance. Studies of the VastTel workforce have confirmed that more than three quarters of existing staff are unemployable in a competitive marketplace. It is in the national interest, therefore, that VastTel continues as an inefficient monolith. Any steps to introduce realistic competition, forcing operational improvements in VastTel, will result in widespread unemployment, and the likely collapse of the economy.'

Jones couldn't believe what he was reading. It seemed inconceivable that the government was involved in such a momentous cover-up. And was it really necessary? Surely these people would be able to find jobs elsewhere? He considered the thought for a moment, and then looked around the room.

'Stay calm, people!' screamed the supervisor, who was far from following his own advice.

'Perhaps they've got a point,' he said to himself.

He wanted to read further, but he was interrupted by a phone call. It was the first time his phone had rung that morning. In fact, it was the first time anyone's phone had rung for some time. It immediately attracted the attention of his supervisor, who was walking the floor.

'Hang on,' he yelled across to Jones. 'Don't answer it. We don't know who it is. It could be a customer.' There was panic in his voice.

Jones let it continue ringing. The supervisor looked very concerned, and a little unsure of what to do next.

'I don't know how this one got through, but perhaps we should let it ring for a while.'

Just then, another phone rang in the far side of the room. The call agents were now starting to fidget. There was definitely a nervous energy in the room.

'Stay calm, people!' screamed the supervisor, who was far from following his own advice. 'There's clearly a fault of some kind. I'll get an engineer down here to fix this.'

Several other phones started to ring. Then some more. The sound was becoming uncomfortable. The supervisor, who was also the floor's union representative, was ready to call a stop-work meeting. He wanted to yell 'Everybody out!' but he knew that nobody could leave the room. It wasn't safe. He was aware of the emerging unrest outside the building.

Not able to get any response from the call centre, thousands of angry customers had decided to take matters into their own hands, and descended on the VastTel offices. A police cordon managed to hold off some of the early arrivals, but, as larger crowds gathered, things started to turn ugly. By lunchtime, tens of thousands of people had amassed on the street outside the company, trying to force an entry. The riot squad was helicoptered in to the top of the headquarters, and scaled the outside of the building, firing warning shots over the heads of the crowd, inadvertently shooting one or two of the taller ones. Before long, there was a full-scale public insurrection, the likes of which Australia had never seen before — at least, not since they lost the Ashes.

Mounted police tried to break up the crowds who pelted the officers with their defunct mobile handsets. All the time, the mob pushed for entry through the revolving doors of the VastTel building. Eventually, they managed to break open the emergency exits, and thousands of angry customers spilled in across the concourse as VastTel employees sipping their cafe lattes at the ground-floor cafe dived for cover beneath the tables.

The riot squad helicoptered in and scaled the building, firing shots over the heads of the crowd, inadvertently shooting one or two of the taller ones.

Warning sirens, installed for precisely an occasion such as this, echoed throughout the building. Emergency lights flashed, and key entry doors to the main section of the building automatically bolted shut. The foyer was plunged into darkness, with the marauding crowd falling and treading over each other in an aimless and desperate stampede.

At the far end of the ground-floor lobby, the double doors that led through to the VastTel call centre became the focus of the horde. They pushed hard and fast, intent on bursting the doors open and confronting the customer-service team with the full ferocity of their anger.

'Quick,' yelled out the team leader. 'Everyone, to the panic room!'

The angry customers had started using coffee tables as battering rams, and it seemed unlikely that the outer doors would hold for long.

The call centre team was led down an empty corridor that took them to the depths of the VastTel complex. Few people had been down here before, but they were grateful for the foresight of the building designers. They had envisaged a day when a panic room would be needed, able to withstand a nuclear attack or the full force of a disgruntled customer base. From here, in a massive lead-lined room, protected by heavy steel doors, they could continue their call operations unheeded by contact with the outside world.

The panic room, they soon discovered, was a fully equipped call centre, with the addition of beds, so staff could stay there until it was safe to leave. The team quickly moved to their new desks, which had the same configuration as the room upstairs. They were clearly scared of what would become of them, as well as angry about the prospect of having to stay at work past 5pm.

They could hear the muffled sound of the crowd upstairs, cheering as they broke through the doors into the room where, moments before, they had been answering calls (occasionally) for their entire working life. Seeing an empty call centre seemed to heighten the anger, and the customers began throwing chairs and smashing computer screens.

Downstairs, the call-centre staff hoped and prayed that the panic room was strong enough to protect them. At least down here, the phones were quiet. When the panic room was activated, to protect the staff, the call-centre software was automatically switched to random mode. That reduced the likelihood that any menu options would relate to questions previously asked, increasing the chance that people would be lost inside the menu forever.

But first, he had to save the country — unless she offered the sex first, in which case the country might have to wait a while.

Jones was as concerned as everyone else. Just how long would they be trapped inside the panic room for? Not wanting to dwell on the circumstance, he returned to the Treasury report that he was still clutching tightly.

The more he read, the more disturbing it became. The final section dealt with what must happen if the integrity of the VastTel plan was compromised.

'It is possible,' the report said, 'that such an inefficient organisation, which, by its nature, will deliver substandard service, will come under scrutiny from the public. We must prevent this from happening, because the repercussions are dire for the population. If it becomes politically untenable for VastTel to continue in its current form, it will be necessary to swiftly, and expediently, implement the Redundancy Program.'

As Jones read on, he realised the Redundancy Program had far more sinister overtones than a simple process of mass lay-offs. It was astonishing in its brutality. He couldn't let this happen. He had to get to the press and leak the story before it was too late. And, if he was going to tell anyone, it might as well be Trisha Botherington. As well as being seen as a credible reporter, there was also the possibility that with another meeting she might agree to have sex with him, particularly if he gave her the biggest news story of a lifetime. 'But first,' he thought to himself rather melodramatically, 'I must save the country.' Unless she offered the sex first, in which case the country might have to wait a while. He'd have to wait and see how it played out.

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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