VPN DOESN’T WORK • by Deven D Atkinson

The barbarians are at the gate and I’ve locked myself outside.

I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy for the situation I’ve gotten myself into, and the best I can come up with is this — you know those little kids that squish their head between the balusters on stairs and then can’t pull their head back out? Yeah, like that. The difference is that I’ve squished my entire self between the balusters.

Just because I can think a million times faster than the flesh and blood human I once was, it doesn’t make me smarter. Right now, I feel very stupid.

There have been a number of very expert hack attempts against my computer system recently. I’ve had to fight off hackers from the very first day after I digitized myself. For the most part, for all the computer systems at Somerset Enterprises, Inc., the standard precautions of limiting internet access to the outside world and having a state of the art firewall suffice. Sure, the throngs of malcontented digizens that gather at my blog host — not part of the computer system I inhabit — moaning and shambling around like so many digital zombies clog the bandwidth, but there hasn’t been a real threat to my security until recently. That’s why I’d hired Jennifer a few years ago. She’s a fantastic digital communications programmer that designed, coded and now maintains my state of the art firewall.

Well, Jennifer was upset that some of the firewall settings were changing, seemingly on their own. At first she blamed me for futzing around with them. Now I admit I’m a world class futzer. As a kid I disassembled clocks, toasters, and lawnmower engines just to see how they worked. When I finally convinced her that I hadn’t messed with any of the settings, she instantly started tracing her firewall code, determined to find a weakness that was being exploited.

She told me I’d just get myself in trouble if I tried to help her. But I like to futz. So I decided that I’d check all the hardware connections to the system. Because I do things on the scale of nanoseconds, it didn’t take but three seconds to triple check all of the standard IO ports, the data cables, attached to my system. Then a thought struck me. There are other, smaller, computer systems connected into mine. What if one of these had an open connection to the outside world?

All of these other computers are suppose to be secure because they sit connected to our internal local area network, our LAN, and the only way for them to get a connection to the world outside is to use the LAN’s tightly controlled connection to the internet. There are computers, like those in our company cafeteria, that aren’t part of our LAN but can be connected to the LAN with a Virtual Privacy Network connection. VPN is just as secure as if the computer was hardwired to the LAN. It’s kind of like a stand-alone garage that is still protected by the main house’s alarm system.

Well, one computer had a hardwired connection to the LAN via one of the ports reserved for VPN. It was a curiosity. Even with my smorgasbord of Jennifer’s Firewall Tools, I couldn’t figure out what exactly was at the other end of the connection.

You have to understand that for someone like me, a digizen with a penchant for curiosity, the temptation was just too great. We digizens get bored easily. To us a nanosecond is the same as a second is to breathing humans. Do you know just how many nanoseconds are in a single second?

Interesting things like this puzzle of ‘what’s at the other end of this connection’ just don’t happen that often. So, like a kid in a kitchen with an unsupervised cookie jar, I dove right in.

Literally.

The computer at the other end was an ancient anachronism — a computer from a different era — from my college days. Hell, it could even be the PC I used to write term papers and play games. In my panic, when I realized just how tiny the storage space on this computer was, I deleted a lot of files wholesale just to make room for me to fit. I’m afraid I also deleted any data transfer tools that might be useful.

I’m in a Compaq Deskpro 386 personal computer of all things! I figure that some bored employee tried to see if they could integrate it into the LAN. They could download data to it from the LAN — obviously since that is how I got here — but had to heavily tweak the Linux operating system they had installed to do even that. It has an open connection to the internet. It appears the last thing they tried was to establish a VPN connection. They just left it running. Who knows how long it’s been here. Well, the VPN doesn’t work. I can’t get back home.

I did find an old communication tool; some web browsing software called Lynx that was popular when the internet was brand new. It’s ancient and text only, but it does work. The only option I seem to have is to post this to my blog and hope that somebody reads it and gets Jennifer, or anyone at Somerset Enterprises, to find me and bring me home.
I’ll be taking a risk. I’m outside the firewall and if the hackers had been using this computer to somehow mess around with the firewall settings, then they could easily discover I’m here and do me harm. But I see no other way to get Jennifer’s attention.

Oh, I can already hear the jokes. “World’s eminent digital citizen takes an analog vacation,” or how about “Politically Incorrect curmudgeon, digizen Pembroke Somerset, goes PC.”

Here I am, cut off from nearly everything, in my own private oubliette. In all seriousness, I’m worried.


Deven D Atkinson is a computer programmer living in rural Southern Ohio. Besides appearances at Every Day Fiction he has stories in “The Infinity Swords” anthology published by Carnivah House, and Abandoned Towers.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Paul Freeman

    This was hard going.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    The writer of this science fiction story about the hybrid species “digizen,” digitized intellects who mix with human beings, seems an expert in a computer field about which I know nothing. The digizen has a deep involvement with computer connections, but not with content put into the computer. It’s interesting that digizens also call their young “kids.” They are more careless about words than the human, using any conveniently at hand. For example, the digizan imagines someone calling him a “curmudgeon.” (The writer, being a wordcrafter is not a digizen, don’t confuse the writer with the protaganist.) I DO know about curmudgeons. I even wrote a poem about them myself. The writer employs the misused word on the part of the digizen to point out the skewed thinking of digizens, their word carelessness. The protaganist is most definitely NOT a curmudgeon, he is more like a whiner.

    This story is no doubt of much greater interest to those well-trained in computer connection and wiring.

  • I’m sure this is well written, what with all the technical knowledge included. The problem though, is that while I can operate a computer, I’m not technically proficient and had a hard time understanding most of it. This probably would be of greater interest to those in the computer field.

  • Interesting idea, but it got drowned in technobabble. My eyes were glazing over. This piece would probably work best in a specialized publication.

    Still, as little as I know about computers, I used to have a 386 and I reeeeeeeeeeeally don’t believe you could squeeze a human consciousness in there, no matter how many files you deleted. And was Linux even out there at the same time as 386’s?

  • This has a good voice and flow. However, I too, was a bit lost in the story which I suppose was IBM Big Blue stuffed in a 386 pc.

    –dj

  • Bob

    Interesting idea (albeit one that has had lots of treatment in the past). But this one is buried in words: words about technology, words about process, words about dealing with Jennifer.

    You tell us a PC is “an ancient anachronism” (got it – it’s old); “a computer from a different era” (okay, we understand, and you’ve emphasized the point you JUST MADE); “from my college days.” By now we’re wondering just how stupid you think we are. It’s old – we got it – can we have more story now?

    Cut out all the exposition and get right to the interesting bits. What’s it like to be an AI? How worried is he to be trapped in an old, cut-off PC? You’ve placed your character in peril, but it’s pretty cold-blooded – you’ve given us no reason to care what happens to him. It. Whatever.

  • Loved it! But then, I’m a professional computer nerd. I can see where some people might find it rough going.

  • Nicholas

    Hey, I enjoyed this one. I consider myself a computer Luddite, but I followed it pretty well nonetheless. Like the metaphor of the old PC being an “oubliette” for the narrator’s trapped consciousness.

  • Cat

    I wouldn’t call myself a computer expert by any means, but I had no difficulty following this. I loved it!

  • Jen

    I also found it hard to read. There are some interesting parts, but not enough for me. Like others have said you could epand this, basing it more on character and cutting out the technobabble. I for one would like to know what happens after he gets out.

  • JohnOBX

    I’m in the group with Janet and others that found this a difficult read. Too much emphasis on the technology, not enough on the character.

    –John

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    On further thought about this story, I find the character of the protaganist very interesting. He obviously misjudged himself, believing that his being digitized made him smarter than others, and now learns that he is merely faster in a limited subject, but not smarter para. 2). How not smart is evident in his deleting “any transfer tools that might be useful” as he breaks into the “anachronistic” small PC, part of the larger “outside world” he wants to wall off, deleting software and files to do so. He also wants to wall off the “throngs of malcontented digizens that gather at …” his “blog post”, to wall off others like himself. Why such a person, who wants to wall off anyone else, chose to have a blog post is not discussed. Blog posts being “software,” he must have pushed the wrong button. He obviously only feels secure with things, hardware, not communicating beings, and whines about himself, calling himself an “eminent digital citizen,” who might possibly be attacked by the barbarians at the gate.”

    I hope he is found by EDC – Every Day Critics before its too late, because we all need experts in New&Old Computer Hardware.

  • Sharon

    A creepy look into the possibilities coming down the pike, for better or worse. I’m no techno-geek, but I was able to follow the gist of the story with no problem.
    Agree that the triple-play description of the 486 is unnecessary, as anyone who understand the rest of the story at all knows what a Commodore is.

    Note: We’re not supposed to care for he/she/it–a “digizen” has given over personhood and become a nameless force, which this character is realizing.

  • I loved the idea & the approach – I also thought the digizen worked well. But I felt the story ended too soon. I wanted to know how he got out of the fix he’d gotten himself into! Perhaps more appropriate for a longer word limit…

  • I am no computer nerd, neanderthal more likely. I loved the humour as well as that “threat of danger” to all potential digizens and plain old computerholics! Good story! 🙂

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    What is especially good about this story is that it is a “science fiction” that doesn’t depend on old cliches of martians and space ships but is rooted in the here and now of present experience of technology. I think the story would be more successfully realized if the writer gave more attention to the development of the prides, lures, and fears of the protaganist in the situation, and paid more careful attention to relevance in the word phrasings just as he did for the actualities of this recognized situation instead of using stock words picked up along the way and omitting carefully observation of the character, realistic or not, who has been placed in the situation. The mechanics of the electronic connections fill out the reality of the piece well and it is good that they’re there, but they are not enough.

  • Margie Lott Chapman

    BORRRRRRRRR-ing!

  • Chetan

    I’m a computer professional even but it was not that appealing for me. I think such topics are complex to write on. I appreciate the courage of the writer. Not the best by you. Keep writing.

  • Too much technospeak, not enough story.