“Virtual Private Networking” by Barry King

Barry King is featured in our New Author Spotlight for Issue 11.
Read our interview with Barry King

I tap the sheaf of paper on the printer’s cover and riffle the leaves between my palms, trying to loosen them up so they won’t jam. Paperless office, my sweet patootie. Checking the wrapper one last time for the print-side-up symbol (one more bit of magical-thinking hocus-pocus that makes us think we can actually appease the malevolence of office machines), I yank on the drawer that’s flashing “empty”. Instead of the sound of tortured plastic and grinding noises, it slides out, smoothly, helpfully, almost happy to be refilled. I pause with surprise, then slip the sheaf into place and press the drawer. It slides, as if self-propelled, into place. All the lights happily wink green. It’s the same printer, the “evil bastard,” the one that never ever works: the familiar scratches and permanent-marker stains are still there.

“Sarah?” I ask. The office manager looks up from her desk, dark frame glasses bridled to the end of her horsey nose by swinging chains. “Did you just get this serviced?”

She grins. “New guy,” she says. “Did something to it.”

“Nice,” I say, watching my report getting neatly collated and stapled. All the copies are demurely ensconced in their bail trays, their staples twinkling in the fluorescent light, including the seventh copy, the one I always have to throw out. And that tooth-ache grinding noise at the end of the print run? Gone.

On my way to the supply cabinet, I glance into the new guy’s cubby. He’s all spindly arms and legs sticking out of his cuffs and trousers; his Adam’s-apple bobs over his severely creased bowtie. I stop and stare. His eyes are closed, while his fingers fly over the keyboard, looking more like that portrait of Liszt in rapture at the piano than a temp doing paperwork. I shake my head and walk by.

For the first time in my seven years at McInnis, Klayvor, and Marschione, the supply cabinet is tidy. Not just tidy. It looks like someone has used a ruler to stack the paper and line up boxes of clips and staples. Someone’s even organized the folders in a rainbow-spectrum. I look over my shoulder at the new guy, but get Michael instead. He rolls his eyes and jogs his shoulder toward the new guy, who is now cracking his knuckles and opening his precise little lunchbox. It comes apart in boxes, like those showy Japanese bentos where everything is arranged just so. Michael and I have a brief chuckle and I get what I need before I head off to lunch myself.

When I get back, he’s doing something with the stapler, the big electric one that hums. He’s got a tiny set of screwdrivers out, and the cover off, and he’s adjusting something inside the mechanical works. He plugs it in with the cover off and slips a paper into its maw. There’s a spark and a brief snap. I come up behind him, but he doesn’t notice.

And then he does something really quick with the screwdriver. Shoves it right into the mechanism and twists. The next piece of paper he slips in is silently stapled, and the machine isn’t humming at all. He reverently places the lid back on, putting his fingertips precisely at the joins where the lid snaps back on. Click. Click. Click. He smiles, his face betraying a deep satisfaction, like a man long imprisoned hearing he’s been pardoned and will soon be released.

“Hi,” I say, startling him out of his reverie. It’s comical. No, it’s more than that. It’s a frame out of a comic strip. The sheets in his hand fountain up into the air and his little screwdrivers go flying. The table tips and all the stacked letterboxes disgorge their contents in a waterfall of paper.

“Ssss…orry Ss…Sss…” he stutters, madly trying to pick up the papers, his tools, the fallen table all at once. I’m apologizing, while I do what I can to help. Melissa and Charlie, the interns, join in, and they have things more or less under control by the time I leave. I apologize several more times, trying to keep a straight face. But when the elevator doors close, I can’t help but burst out in laughter. One of the stuffed shirts from the seventh floor gives me a look, but I ignore him.

Around 4:30, I’m hoping to get out in time, when the dreaded Mr. Fox, MCSE sidles in. He’s the head of IT services, and my boss, and one of those guys who is really, really apologetic about things, and doesn’t want to upset you, and wants to take all of your feelings on board, but that doesn’t ever stop him from giving you an eight-hour assignment at the end of the day, and then expecting you not to record those extra hours on your timesheet. Eventually, he gets around to the point.

“So, the patch needs to be applied today, since the profile updates get pushed out tomorrow when everyone logs in. I’d ask one of the others to do it, but like I always say…”

“…I’ve got the knack,” I say, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

“That’s the spirit,” he says, oblivious, his grin spreading his ginger bottle-brush moustache. He reaches over to tap my shoulder in some kind of fatherly gesture, but the sensitivity training kicks in and he sort of flails his hand around as he gets up. I notice he’s already got his overcoat down and he’s heading for the exit, not his office.

But he’s right. I do have the knack. I can’t explain it any other way. Stuff just works for me. Well, IT stuff. PCs. Nothing mechanical or plumbing or involving paper. But if it’s got chips and transistors, I can get it working, and if I can’t, I know what needs doing to get it there. I say it’s a knack, but it’s really just a strong intuition, a feeling, that tells me where to look and what to do when I find the problem. One that’s rarely wrong. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

So I start prepping the job. It’s pretty simple, and a lot of it I can automate. I set up some rules on the server, put the files in the right place, and then bring up my checklist, starting with the second floor and working my way up. First push it out to the workgroup server, then ether-wake all the PCs in the local groups and get them to accept the patches. There’s a couple of problems: A runaway process on one that needs killing, a stale network link on another that needs to be unloaded and reloaded. I remote in for these. Virtualization is your friend, and saves you a lot of walking.

And of course, there’s a few people who forgot to log out. I hate that, because you have to go through all their unsaved documents and save them in appropriate places before you reboot their PCs. The privacy issue is in the small print, so I’m legally protected, but I’m never comfortable going through a person’s work. Even if it is just a timesheet. Privacy is important to me, because if the shoe was on the other foot… Well, let’s just say privacy is important to me.

So when I see the new guy is still logged into the network, I groan. I bring up the remote management software, punch in his IP address, and look. There’s a couple of reports, already saved, so I just close those. He’s minimized the browser, so I open that window. It’s some kind of schematic. We do some patent work here at MKM, so that’s not unusual. He’s got dozens of tabs open. I start to close those. More and more schematics. Lots of clockwork. Some of the patents are old and Victorian-style with the line art and the little lines all carefully numbered, and “fig. # so-and-so” under each drawing. Then there’s some photography, but it’s not patent stuff. It’s art pieces, fine photography. Then it’s people dressing up with gears all over themselves. Steampunk stuff. Some of it’s kind of racy. Um… very racy. I look at the URL. archimedespr0n.tumblr.com [NSFW]. Uh-oh.

Now I am required to pry. It’s my job to report all “accesses of pornography and/or illegal material and collect evidence for possible action by HR”. Reluctantly, I slap an incident log form on my clipboard and fill out the top part: Date, time, equipment “compromised” (it’s the same form for security incidents, but we all joke that “compromised” has double meanings). Plus it means I need to make a physical search for storage media. I look at the time. 8:24 already. Damn. It would be a tragedy if it wasn’t already a tragedy that nobody’s waiting for me at home. Not even a cat. I log the time on the report and grab my keys so that I can unlock the third-floor elevator.

When I get there, it’s pretty much as expected. In the cubicle wasteland, there’s only one monitor burning, and it’s from the new guy’s cubicle. The only other light is the single florescent security lamp in the corner. No, that’s not true. There’s a blue light in the hallway. Flickering. I shove the keys in my pocket and walk down the short distance to the copy room. That’s where the light is coming from. I drop my clipboard.

The new guy’s in there, his back to me. And he’s naked. The only light is the blue glare of the photocopier in front of him, but I can make out his back, his spindly arms, his tight little butt. He’s covered in tattoos. All over his back, all down his arms and legs, anywhere they don’t show, are tattoos of gears, like he’s made up of gears all over. He’s got the photocopier totally disassembled. It’s all in pieces on the floor and piled up all the way to the walls. And it’s moving. I watch as small flocks of gears wheel up to him and then climb his legs, swarming all over his skin, meshing with the tattoo gears which… are moving, like some kind of stop-motion animation going on all over him. His arms are out and he’s swaying, his head thrown back. Then all the parts of the photocopier swirl around him like vines twining around a tree and he’s moaning in some kind of mad ecstasy. His face turns in quarter-profile and I can see his eyes are rolled up into his head and his mouth is slack as he thrashes with abandon.

My knees grow weak, knock together, and the smallest of moans escapes my throat.

His head snaps servo-like in my direction and one eye flicks open. I can see the lenses inside move, focus on me, just an instantaneous iris-flash before I run for the stairs.

I don’t recall entirely how I make my way out of the building and onto the streets, but it’s eleven P.M. according to my watch before I come to my senses. What am I going to do? Who can I tell? SHOULD I tell anyone? I play the incident over again in my head, and I return to the office. My security key lets me in and I go up to the third floor. His cubicle is dark. I go to the copier room and flick on the lights, feeling the muscles of my stomach brace for what I’m about to see.

The copier is there, as if nothing had happened. I go over to it, switch it on. It comes softly to life with a purr. I press copy. The light flickers across the closed cover and a perfectly blank, flawless piece of paper slides out. I look at it. Turn over both sides. I take the calendar down and photocopy the January scene of the Matterhorn. The copy slides out, just as silently, flawless, unblemished and unlined. I put these into the recycling and go upstairs to my office.

The lights are off, but when I turn them on, I see my clipboard on my chair. There’s a post-it note attached. ‘Sorry. Please don’t tell anyone.’ No signature.

I sit down and finish the job. The last of the workstations is updated about two A.M., which is when I reach my decision. I go home, wash up, and then go downstairs, around the corner to a place I know. There’s still music playing, although only a few couples are dancing. I go in the back.

Jimmy the Key is there. He takes my coat and sits me down with the deference reserved for his best customers. I tell him what I want. He says, “But you can get that at any box store. For less than half a grand.” I say I know, but they’re all closed and I need it now. He shrugs, goes into the back and comes out with a box. I hand him some bills. We part, all business-like and private, the way I like it.

Four hours’ power nap and I’m headed back to work. On the way, I stop by the 24-hour drugstore and pick up the best-looking box of chocolates I can find. I dump them out into the bowl at the receptionist’s when I get inside. She’s there already, although nobody else is due to come in for another half-hour. She eyes me funny, but shrugs and pops one in her mouth.

On the empty third floor, I take out my package. It’s a Z-480 mechanical interface – a hobby kit, for those kids who want to program robots. I throw out the rest of the packaging, but then reconsider. I take out the folded paper from inside the static-proof envelope and open it up. It’s all lines and circuit board schematics, all carefully labeled and razor-sharp. I smile and re-fold it along with the Z-480 and put them inside the empty chocolate-box and neatly tie the ribbon back in place.

It’s nothing special, the Z-480. It does some basic motions and some basic senses, and has some pretty extensive firmware, but the nice part about it is the universal interface that plugs into my socket-board, neatly joining the digital world to the analog.

Just before going back up to my office, I grab a post-it note from his desk and a marker and write ‘If you’re free after work, I’d like to connect.’

I’ve got an intuition says this is going to be the start of a good, long relationship. One with some… private networking benefits.

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About the Author

Barry King is an IT consultant to NGOs who was born in Greece and lived in Tunisia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Brunei, and the U.S. before finally settling in his wife’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario and converting to Canadianism. He moonlights for ChiZine Publications and maintains a token online presence at http://barry-king.livejournal.com.

Barry King is featured in our New Author Spotlight for Issue 11.
Read our interview with Barry King

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