Phil Rutman: Space Accountant

Some days, the eyes just hurt....

(Motivation Unknown Except I Like 
Phil Rutman, Accountants and Outer Space)


“Phil, Phil! Wake up, you were sleeping.”

The amplified voice over the speaker startled Phil into semi-consciousness. Peering at the flat screen above the speaker, he grinned a timeless expression of a dappled and still drowsy general awareness of the message.

“Thank you, system. I am now awake,” responded Phil as he gathered his thoughts and peered into his monitor at the hundreds of databases awaiting his review. It was month-end on the mother ship and he was under pressure to get these books closed as soon as possible. He was a Certified Space Accountant and was responsible for almost all of the transactional accounting tasks for this space fleet. He needed to make sure payroll was completed, all payables and receivables reconciled while still working on his Fixed Assets project while the new budget cycle loomed over him like a Tlookian moon beast.

Phil began at the hated payroll. The fleet commanders rarely sent in needed documentation but seemed to be hiring pilots and mechanics like drunken space sailors. If they only complied with operating procedure, everyone would be getting paid when they were promised. Unfortunately, Phil’s communicator was constantly jammed with frantic messages from newbies complaining they had been flying or fixing something for several weeks and never got paid. Once Phil researched the claims, the culprit was always the same: their commanding officers. They would constantly plead for manual payouts, in all types of currencies, and promise Phil they would get the documentation into the system. Of course, next pay period would come around and half of them would need manual payouts again.

This cyclical crisis was more of a symptom that the real cause of the problems. The time it took Phil’s payroll staff to cut manual star checks, transport them to the payees, make a manual journal entry and still keep an eye on everything else was monumental. The payroll of a modern star fleet was huge, complex and completely thankless. There were hundreds of pay arrangements including performance bonuses for enemy kills and captures, merit pay for battlefield promotions and a complex formula to determine incentive pay for treasure seizure. Some of these bonuses were taxable, depending on the location and the circumstances surrounding the event and a lot of the regulations were still being created a thousand light years away.

“The fascinating thing about payroll,” said Phil to anyone who would listen to him at the mess hall, “is that when it works correctly and everyone gets paid. I hear nothing. I consider complete silence to be my applause.”

Once payroll was completed, Phil went to his next task of auditing contractors. This area was even looser as there were no standards for contractors and their roles, from mercenaries to translators, were all over the board. The necessary documentation, receipts and correspondence was sketchy at best and non-existent at worst. Often tardy space packets would be received, full of data files of questionable integrity and blunt invoices on what were owed to whom. Phil was expected to wade through that morass of inaccuracy and generate payment within the terms of the agreement. Many of the terms were aggressive, within microseconds of the conclusion of the deliverable, and he was expected to send a mind bending variety of payment options to places both close and incredibly distant without dropping the ball. Phil took special care of mercenaries due to his history with them on past voyages.

On his first deployment, the entire payables department was vaporized by a bounty hunter because they had misplaced his current address. The payment, which was believed to be either several tons of cinnamon or cardamom (he never remembered), was sent to the address on file. Unfortunately, the address was old but was still the current residence of his ex-wife. Once the cinnamon and/or cardamom arrived, she decided to distribute it to her family members and all traces of the shipment disappeared except the empty containers. Needless to say the address was not the department’s fault but fault finding was a part of the bounty hunter’s demeanor. Needless to say, fault became a low priority once he finished and a fine, gritty ash floated in the area that AP once did their business. From that moment on, mercenary payroll and general payroll were the top priorities and in that order of priority.

Payroll was one of his least favorite tasks as it spanned across two areas of fleet responsibility; Finance and Human/Cyborg Resources. Both departments suffered together with this process because it was high stakes and critical to keep the fleet aloft. If new recruits or life forms who had switched allegiances didn’t get paid when promised, all the hyperbole about teamwork would go right out the portal. Payroll fluctuated so significantly with thousands of new hires, dozens of different holiday calendars and at times hundreds of thousands of deaths. If a rebel uprising was successful, Phil would have to bring in hundreds of temporaries just to process death benefit payouts. That anguish was only compounded with late or missing documentation. He was constantly dispatching interns into time to correct and complete paperwork. As he saw an intern standing in the transporter room with a case of documents to be signed, he would mutter to himself, “this is a hell of a way to run a business.”

Once payroll was completed, Phil felt the wave of exhaustion sweep over him again. He did not want to be monitored by the system falling asleep yet again so he logged off for the day and went back to his quarters. He had completed a large amount of work and would be trending well into the acceptable level when the metrics were generated at the end of the day. The week would get easier as Payroll was always the largest and most challenging task but with a departmental retreat scheduled later in the week, he knew he had to work harder tomorrow to pick up the slack of a day out of the office.

The remaining areas of the finance group, payables and receivables, were the disciplines least changed by technology. A few aspects were affected by technology, such as terms were quicker (measured in nanoseconds) with the handful of currencies payouts were replaced with untold millions. The days of managing the top ten planet currencies were pushed aside with non-traditional currencies as well as unique payment methods. A majority of their customers had their own currency, usually based on a precious metal or commodity. A few of the odd ones used energy sources such as heat or radioactivity units and a few others stuck with salt, silica or some abundant Earth commodity. Each day, thousands of invoices would hit payables with a smorgasbord of payment terms, methods and detail. Nothing could be assumed and each invoice had to be reviewed by both cyber and human accountants. The process around getting people paid was daunting because other than bounty hunters, who usually showed up in person for their payment, payments would be sent across galaxies to folks unknown and hopefully, unseen.

On a normal day, several thousand invoices would materialize and Phil’s team would go through and categorize them in priority order. If things were missing or deviating from procedure, a robot auditor would be issued and dispatch itself to the invoice address. The robot, or audit orb would remain at the requestor’s address until all questions were answered. So throughout with their jobs, it was common to have some of the audit orbs destroyed due to their social bluntness. Upon destroyed the audit orbs, a new charge against the original invoice was deducted from their invoice.

The team of accountants assigned to this particular space fleet was full of seasoned professionals; they had endured numerous audits and could navigate through volumes of obscure galaxy-specific regulations without fear. They likened themselves to be the corporate counterparts to the hotshot fighter pilots and commando teams that were constantly being deployed to the most important trouble spots in the galaxy. The accountants, although in a secondary role, knew their contribution to the mission was equally as important as anyone else. At a department meeting, this topic was presented by Phil’s boss for general discussion.

“There is no purpose of plundering a planet if you can’t effectively inventory the riches,” began J.R. Buckmeister. He opened the conference with that attention-getting phrase and once uttered, he allowed himself to be bathed in the waves of pre-programmed applause from the attendees. The days of actually clapping were ancient history and today, to show approval, the audience just activates one of the dozens of applause option on their chair for the speaker to gauge their level of interest. Buckmeister knew this would be a tough crowd due to the constant under appreciation of the accounting and finance team.

An area close to Phil’s heart was the introduction of Cyborg soldiers to reduce the total cost of deployment. The Cyborgs were sold as an alternative to putting genuine life forms on the front lines. However, the vendors would broadcast a terminate state command if their payments were not received at a certain time each month. Phil was happy that payroll was reduced because of the Cyborgs, but it put huge pressure on the payables folks to get things reconciled and out the portal on time. If the payment was not received, the terminate command would render all outstanding Cyborgs completely inoperable. Not only was it embarrassing to the field commanders, it made for a fair amount of abuse at the meetings.

During his reflective moment, his communicator vibrated and announced that a few of his friends were trying to contact him from the ship’s tavern. The heat and sobriety sensors were both in the lower red zone when the picture feed was finally visible. The vibration message arrived just as the meeting was breaking up, Phil was happy to be done with the boring pontifications and was thirsty.

“Phil! Where are you?” drunkenly screamed a few of the usually buttoned colleagues.

“I see you,” smiled Phil. “And I see you must have completed the Orion fleet audit.”

“We sure did!” shouted a predictably meek but now animated audit clerk. The clerk was sweaty and disheveled, holding onto her almost empty drink container. It was a large container and he was sure it was the main contributor to her drunkenness. Her hair was released from her bun-like fortress and she was gyrating to the background music; it was apparent that beneath her usual serious demeanor lay an accounting seductress Ramona.

Phil recognized her from staff meetings. She was a moderately new enlistee who never made eye contact and was always busily scooting around, efficiently cross referencing data disks and invoice numbers. In a society of space uniforms, hers was even more understated due to her insistence on wearing her hair in a tight bun and sporting only sensible space boots. Tonight was a different story; he assumed that once they signed off on the audit and packed away their records, the adrenaline from closing her first audit got the best of her.

“Come on down,” said his friend Olaf. Olaf was his peer and the supervisor of the audit team. Treated like a pariah in most circles outside of the Finance fleet, Phil and Olaf were close friends and got together whenever convenient.

“I am tired,” said Phil. “My fixed asset…”

“That fixed asset story again?” interrupted Olaf. “That project has no hard delivery time and is basically your hobby. Did you get payroll finished?”

“Yes”

“Did you pay the mercenaries?”

“Yes, in fact I think I overpaid some of them.”

“Great! Now, come on down and have a belt; it has been one hell of a day.”

Phil agreed and pulled the shade down on his communicator. He took a quick sonic shower, changed into his casual uniform, grabbed his money and was in the tavern in a few seconds. He was somewhat interested in the accounting seductress Ramona as well as getting out a bit, like the good old days when as a young accountant, he would count like a machine during the day and drink like one at night.

The accounting crowd screamed “Phil!” the moment he walked in. He smiled, waved and ordered himself a drink. A few moments later, drink in hand, he joined the obviously intoxicated audit group in the back, where several tables had been connected. The audit sounded like a real challenge: Orion fleet was a forward fleet and constantly on the cutting edge of both exploration and acquisition. Their commander was originally from marketing before moving into space operations so there were only a few policies in place and the ones that were documented, were not followed anyway.

The audit group spent several lunar months chasing down maddening pieces of a cruelly manufactured hell puzzle of supposed generally acceptable space accounting standards. There were countless cash payouts, undocumented bribes and literally an infinite number of accounting irregularities*.

The audit was thankless and arduous and was presented to the senior duty commander on time that afternoon. Their recommendations were comprehensive with several hundred well-thought out suggestions with corresponding revenue impacts for each one. The senior commander thanked them for their good work and dismissed them without detail. The Orion fleet was a very profitable and successful fleet and he was concerned whether or not this compliance suggestions would restrict the group from making their numbers so he routed the report to the fleet commander and added the comment of “try to do your paperwork” at the bottom with his own personal font. Unknown to the commander, a silicon copy automatically went to Olaf, who upon seeing the appreciation from senior management, directed his entire audit staff to the tavern with the express order to drink heavily.

Olaf took the time to enlighten Phil on the entire story while consuming several potent space drinks.

“I thought cash is the quintessential liquid asset,” said Phil after his estimated tenth drink.

“Well,” said Olaf, “there is something also to be said for plutonian sour mash.”

The two continued to swap stories for the rest of the night with the last recorded comment of “don’t get me started on sick days” coming from Phil before everyone was forcibly beamed to their individual quarters. It was late and he was going to suffer a bit with the self-imposed sleep time reduction but things happen. He shut his eyes and it seemed like ten minutes later, he was jolted from his sleep.

“Phil, Phil! Wake up, your sleep period is now concluded.”

The amplified voice over the speaker startled Phil into semi-consciousness. But in this case, he was sporting a very specific and troublesome hangover. Peering at the flat screen above his bed, he waved and gave the system an appropriate acknowledgement.

“Thank you, system. I am now awake,” He jumped into a sonic shower and turned on both the toxin reduction fog and forced hydration waves, just hoping for low level relief. He went down to the gallery for some breakfast and saw his little audit intern sitting by herself, hair pulled back into a merciless bun with her sun goggles around her neck. Considered official standard issue when the fleet would actually pass through brown dwarfs, the goggles were widely known to be an effective mitigator of hangover affects.

“Hello, Ramona,” said Phil, “May I sit down?”

Ramona the auditor jumped in her seat and was surprised that Phil Rutman, Space Accountant asked to sit next to her.

“Of course,” said Ramona. She cleared space on the table and he sat down next to her. Her eyes were crimson and he was moderately sure this was her first space hangover. In space, oxygen is the exception not the rule and individuals who are suffering hangovers desperately needed additional oxygen sources and re-hydration aids. Without any assistance, space hangovers would last approximately three months and usually the combination of toxin reduction fogs, hydration waves, ginger ale and a trip to sickbay would help with the pain and sufferings. The sun goggles were more psychological but Phil thought it might be worth going back to his quarters after breakfast and try to find his as well. They concluded the quiet breakfast with appreciative but passive nods of their aching heads as this was not the time to complicate matters.

After breakfast, he detoured to his quarters and grabbed his sun goggles. He was planning an entire day to his project which meant no meetings and hopefully, no visitors. He could quietly remain in his office, guzzling ginger ale and work on something that would keep his mind off his hangover and loss of sleep. The Fixed Assets project was on management’s space radar and would no doubt be referenced at the monthly meetings so he realized he needed to put together a small presentation update for that meeting and at the very least, compose a professional response summary if asked prior to that meeting.

The project was framed up nicely because he luckily took a long time to define the problem. Initially, he was the only one concerned about the out of control inventory of the space fleet so, without management interference, he actually engaged in quiet contemplative thought and allowed the issue to be assessed without unfair time constraints or politics.

On Earth, fixed assets are generally equipment, buildings, factories, real estate and furniture with an actual determined value and are not expected to be converted to cash (sold) in the current or upcoming future. These assets can be sold but it is usually a long, drawn out process with numerous variables including the age of the product, leases, depreciation and inventory. In finance, fixed assets are considered the three legged dog of the accounting world because everyone feels sorry for the person managing it, but no one ever wants to do it for a living. Phil, a caring soul, was drawn to the area out of a cruel fascination for the mundane as well as a desire to go somewhere rarely visited by free will. He realized that something boring on Earth, transforms into something slightly less boring in space. Combine that with the constant dynamic of the space and time continuum, you can end up with some funky-ass accounting principles.

In space, things are a bit different due to general nature of time and deep space travel. A valuable asset, such as a state-of-the-art database system can become instantly obsolete when being exposed to superior cultures. Literally overnight, the value of the asset drops to zero and is replaced by some new, self-generating system giving out of pity by the visiting space pioneers. Time travel also caused the fixed asset folks headaches when going forward or backward into time. Things written off one minute were yet to be discovered the next or then going ahead a millennium, the products didn’t exist and could only be referenced by an ancient history scholar. Or, inventory shortage once viewed as the last resort, can be resolved by going back into time and securing lost items prior to their disappearance. Needless to say, the science of fixed assets has undergone significant impacts since true space travel was the norm.

Managing fixed assets is hard enough in a stationary world but factors such as depreciation and molecular transporting also wreaked havoc on the discipline. The main factor was that depreciation formulas broke down when time travel was brought into the equation. Phil struggled to find a formula or a rule of thumb to use while dealing with issues such as an expensive weapon, scheduled to be off the books in three years, spends a majority of its usefulness either back in time (or forward into time) and rarely exists in a present state. If the weapon remains in the past, it creates a back hole of asset management. Not only did it have a certain level of value that decreases each year, it is now exists one thousand years in the past (many of the warriors would claim a “convenient forgetfulness” with time travel) so in a sense, has appreciated one thousand fold. He was trying to elegantly define exclusions for such an item and his recommendation was likely going to be demanding the department treat that as a straight expense, versus capital. Although he was right, the departments would dramatically push back on that idea and plead some special circumstance and demand fiscal relief. He hated when people did that because he was the one that had to made the data books balance.

“Try writing off something in three hours, versus three years,” thought Phil as he continued to develop his own unique costing and inventory model.

Once these issues were raised to create fiscal tension in the start of his research, Phil finally settled on new processes to relieve the tension while still maintaining some semblance of fiscal integrity. His idea was to not manage fixed assets any longer: it was becoming almost impossible to manage jurisdictions across galaxies in addition to dealing with local interpretations of the same ideas. Phil proposed that the fleet should keep track of assets for the sake of knowing how many that have and how many they need but the days of write offs and counting things for the sake of counting had to come to an end.  Stealing his ideas from Clausewitz, he realized that he was the only fighter to see and fight the creeping issues of non-compliance. So, when he finished his analysis, he decided it was time to bury his findings in a long-winded conclusion.

It took him one more week to clean up his recommendations and his consciously avoided pre-review by his supervisors; getting rid of fixed assets might be viewed as heresy so he didn’t want to stick his neck out for something that no one else was championing. Fixed assets are a thankless job because no one cares about it except some depreciation-obsessed toadie that is always looking out for some deduction or budget game. Realistically, if you have your assets, you treat them with respect and since you paid for them with your own budget, they are yours to implement in whatever fashion that strikes you at the moment. So, the accountants are on the outside looking in and Phil knew sooner or later, all the goofy rules would force a non-Accountant to mutter the words “So, tell me why we are fooling around with fixed assets?”

Once the report was sent, Phil took all his personal fixed asset responsibilities, which was minor, and sent them to deep storage. Once he hit the button, he felt that he had lost at least one gravity magnification.  He saw the screen signify the arrival of the data files to deep storage and he pressed his communicator for Olaf.

“Anyone want to hit the tavern tonight?” asked Phil. He felt good and was interested in telling Olaf about his fixed asset theory and was wondering about the sensible but still beautiful Ramona.

“Sounds like a good idea,” replied Phil. “We are finishing up phase end tonight so it is time we meet again.

That night, fully primed for socializing, Phil arrived at the tavern early. The accountants were coming in gradually and he was anxious to see Ramona. She arrived alone and made eye contact with Phil. The vibe was positive; he was in an entertaining mood and felt a connection with Ramona. The group was collectively in the mood to have some drinks and cracks about sun goggles were already being introduced. Now, Phil told his ever growing close circle of friends this story and ended with his now-famous trademark line of “And don’t get me started on sick days” and got a solid laugh. However, this time, he paused and added “and worker’s comp” and left the crowd in tears. He was freaking Phil Rutman, Space Accountant extraordinaire and tonight was going to be a blast.

Back to Short Stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Example of a Space Accounting definition: the standard space accounting procedure for working with infinity is to take the highest estimated average number of instances and multiply that by a googol, then round up to the nearest trillion. Once booked, infinity could be managed like a liability. Back to the Story.