Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Church of Virtual Saints - Opening Chapter

With just over a week left until the release of The Church of Virtual Saints I would like to present the opening chapter:

Six months in prison had changed Dan Emmet. Where once he’d been soft, antisocial and rarely left the comforts of his home, he now sat upright and watchful in the visiting room. His table was positioned to one side and he scanned the other tables while he waited.

He recognised the faces of a few of the prisoners. As much as possible he kept himself apart from the others. Despite being locked in a cell for twenty hours a day it wasn’t easy with so many men confined in such a small space.

One face in particular he would never forget.

Stationed along the walls in their black and white uniforms, prison officers watched the prisoners and their visiting families, wives and girlfriends. They stood like hawks waiting for a rabbit to show its face.

When he’d first arrived after being charged with kidnapping Sarah Mitchell he doubted he would survive for long in this place. That same night, he wept face-down into the pillow as the three men took turns in violating him, and he wished that he hadn’t survived.

The feeling didn’t last long.

As he lay with blood and semen dribbling down the back of his legs he realised that he wanted to live. The pain awakened something inside him, something beyond what he’d ever experienced in his life up until that point.

An appreciation for life.

Luckily for him a prison officer who hadn’t been bought off had looked through the observation slit in the door. The sharp rap of a baton against steel had saved Dan’s life. The other officers were slow to respond, but the three convicts stepped away now that there was a witness. The pain filled Dan’s awareness, almost drowning out his renewed desire for life.

He’d sobbed as the officers dragged him to the hospital wing. Catcalls and jeers from the other prisoners followed him through the corridor.

A week in the hospital wing provided a brief respite and time to recover. Most of the inmates ignored him, but one of the orderlies told him in a whisper that there was a price on his head. A large enough price for some of the crazier prisoners to consider serving life for, or another life sentence as the case might be.

As the pain faded so the fear inside him grew. They would return him to the general population of the prison and he would be a target.

Dan hadn’t fought since being at school. And he’d rarely won a fight then. Two decades spent breaking computer and network security hadn’t prepared him for physical danger, and the terror of what would happen filled his waking thoughts and corrupted his dreams.

When the two guards arrived and took him back to the wing he trembled so much could barely walk. They carried his dead weight as his legs faltered in fear. His terror peaked when he reached the final gate and saw that most of the prisoners were out of their cells for association.

A few crowded around a battered pool table with an officer in close attendance, watching the game and the single cue shared between the players. Others played board games and cards on tiny tables scattered around the ground floor.

Small groups of prisoners talked amongst themselves on the landings for the floors above. The blue prison denims and grey shirts contrasted with the smaller number of black-and-white uniforms of the guards.

When the gate crashed shut behind him, the noise of conversation ceased and Dan felt the weight of their stares against his bladder. So much so that he feared he would piss his pants and so humiliate himself even further. It seemed almost funny that the fear of public embarrassment reared higher inside him than the fear of a second violation.

With an effort Dan gathered what little strength he had and walked unaided through the crowd of watchful inmates. He kept his eyes cast downward to avoid their stares.

To his relief they didn’t escort him to the same cell as before. The thought of experiencing the abuse again burned like acid in his stomach.

Instead they placed him in a single-occupancy room at the far end of the ground floor. The wing had four of these cells, places to put inmates who were at risk from others or themselves.

Dan didn’t realise it at the time, but being in one of those cells made him almost as much a target as the price on his head.

The next attack occurred the following day in the showers. This time he attempted to resist when a small bald man covered in rough-looking tattoos came at him with a razor blade melted into the head of a toothbrush.

With the first swing, the blade sliced deep into the meat of his arm. Deep as the cut was it didn’t hit a vein. The blood flowed freely, only to be dispersed by the spray of water from the showers.

The second swing followed in a smooth motion from the first and sliced into his cheek. Dan had barely felt the first slice as his adrenalin surged, but the second cut, only a second or so later, forced a scream from him.

A dozen other prisoners paused in their own showering to observe the disturbance, but swiftly looked away once they realised it wasn’t them in danger, or their business.

Again it was one of the guards who saved his life and he returned once more to the hospital. This visit lasted only a few hours. Long enough for a bored-looking nurse to clean the wounds and stitch them closed. Now the scars stand out pale against the skin of his cheek and forearm.

And so the pattern of Dan’s new life formed.

After the third attack a senior officer finally took notice and offered Dan a transfer to the protection wing. The offer tempted him, but he’d learned more about the ways of prison life by that point. He realised that if he followed that path then he’d never be able to return. Secure in protection he might have been, but it would have been amongst the grasses and the sex offenders.

A spark had awoken within him. Life had some worth and he was willing to fight for it. To hide in the filth would be no life at all.

So he’d refused the offer and returned to the wing. One of the inmates told him the price on his head had gone. Apparently the woman who’d put it there had vanished.

He hadn’t believed the news at first – why would he? However the attacks became less frequent and he allowed himself to hope. Hope was a dangerous thing in prison but it gave him something to hold on to and keep going.

The attacks didn’t cease altogether, but he fought back. Unsuccessfully for the most part. He remained alone in the wing and he’d earned the mark of a victim, a stain not easily removed. He also started attending the gym and discovered a new joy in pushing his body to the limits.

Fighting back also pushed his fears away. While he rarely won any of the fights, the fact that he tried gave him confidence in himself. Ultimately his tormentors found new and easier fish to prey upon.
And so Dan settled into a new routine. He missed having computer access and the dark depths of the internet he’d once spent so much time in, but reading and the gym now occupied his days. He still got involved in the occasional fight – he’d even won the last one – and he tried to avoid thinking about the future.

Surviving day to day in this alien environment was one thing. A decade or more in prison wasn’t something he wanted to contemplate in any detail.

He brought his attention back to the present and looked at the man who’d caused him so much pain. No fear remained, and when the man glanced at Dan he avoided eye contact, perhaps recognising the change. Dan smiled at the small victory and turned to the sound of his visitor sitting down.

Dan recognised Morton immediately. The lawyer wore the same confident expression and expensive suit as he had when he’d represented Dan during the police interrogation six months ago. He’d ignored the lawyer’s instructions and that had been the last time Dan had seen him.

 Dan waited for the lawyer to speak. That was something else he had learned since his incarceration – let the other person fill the silence and reveal their intentions.

Morton appeared to have changed little since their last meeting. His face wore few lines, only the grey flecks in his hair betrayed his age.  His eyes shone with an inner purpose that Dan couldn’t place. And when he spoke, it was with a cultured, educated tone.

“Mr Emmet, it is good to see you again.”

Morton didn’t look phased by Dan’s silent treatment and Dan continued his silence by simply nodding in acknowledgement.

“I see that you have adapted to your situation, Mr Emmet. May I call you Dan?”

Dan shrugged.

“Okay then, Dan. You seem to be happy to dispense with small talk so I’ll get to the point.”

“That would be good.”

“So you can speak after all. It’s a shame you didn’t listen to me – you would have been out of here by now.”

“If you’ve come to tell me ‘I told you so’ then that seems a bit petty.”

Morton smiled.

“No, I wouldn’t travel all the way here for something so trivial.”

“Why have you come?”

“Quite simply, Dan – I need your skills.”

“For what? “Considering the business you were in you’ll understand that I can’t tell you everything. Not to begin with, anyway.”

Dan nodded.

“Good. I have need of someone with your particular talents. There are certain people and technologies that I need you to investigate.”

“Why me? I’m good, but I’ve been out of touch for a while and I don’t have access anymore.”

“No, and you probably won’t for the rest of your life.”

“What do you mean? The kidnapping charge will put me in for ten, maybe fifteen years, my lawyer told me.”

“Your court-appointed lawyer is correct. Or would be if that was all you were being charged with.”
Dan nodded. He had wondered why the police had never mentioned the systems and other equipment from his basement. There hadn’t been any opportunity to wipe the systems clean, so even the barely competent police analysts should have found something. But nothing had ever been said, until now.

“You will be charged with various computer hacking-related offences early next week. The charges are serious enough that the prosecution will seek to have the sentences run consecutively, effectively doubling your time in prison.

“Not only that but you will also receive a lifetime injunction to prevent you even touching a computer again.”

“They can’t do that!”

“I’m afraid they can, Dan.”

That was an unexpected development. While he deliberately tried to avoid thinking too far into the future, he did keep a hope for his release in the back of his mind. And what else could he do but return to his life with computers?

“Why now?”

“There was some evidence on your system that had to be removed before the police were allowed to investigate.”

“The AI.”

“Yes, and there is the other reason why I need you. You were one of the few people to determine the truth of what happened.”

“So it was an AI?”

“Yes it was.”

And that simple sentence made Morton’s visit worthwhile. He’d known, of course, that the entity calling itself Misty Felice had been an artificial intelligence. He’d suspected it had spontaneously emerged from several chatbots created by the Russian mob. These bots used scantily clad avatars and clever real-time chat routines to deceive internet users into revealing information like passwords and credit card details.

The Misty Felice entity had developed greater sophistication, apparently capable of learning – and even seemed self-aware. He’d told this to the police in the endless interviews, but they didn’t seem to care.

They wanted only one thing, the confession for kidnapping Sarah Mitchell. With some embarrassment, and not a little regret, he remembered his infatuation with her. With the benefit of hindsight and a new perspective he recognised his actions as infantile. He’d admitted his culpability to the police.

His lawyer wasn’t interested in his story about artificial life on the internet. He also warned Dan that the attempt for an insanity plea wouldn’t aid his case at all.

“And that is one of the reasons I want you to join me,” Morton continued. “You figured out what hardly anyone else could.”

“And it was really an AI?”

“Yes. As I said, this is why I need you. Yes I have other hackers who help me out, but none of them could have discovered what you did.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Dan, you knew all along – don’t lose focus now.”

“I know. It’s just been so long, and no-one ever believed me.”

“They weren’t supposed to. That’s part of what I can’t tell you right now, but maybe one day.”

“I still don’t see how I can really help you. Do you want me to consult for you or something?”

“No, I need you in a more hands-on role.”

“But, as you’ve pointed out, I’ll be stuck in here for many years.”

“I can change that.”

Dan laughed. “I’m sure you’re a talented lawyer, Mr Morton, but they have me bang to rights. I’m going nowhere.”

Morton smiled in response. “In this case it isn’t my skill as a lawyer that will get you out of here. I have useful contacts who owe me favours.”

“You really want me that badly?”

“Yes I do and the work is important.”

“Yet you can’t tell me about it.”

“No – I won’t tell you. There’s a difference. Now it is time for you to make a choice. Rot here in prison and maybe collect a few more scars, or will you take a chance and do something worthwhile?”

“How do I know what you want me to do is worthwhile?”

“Was stopping the entity you knew as Misty Felice a good thing?”

Dan nodded.

“And what about the next Misty? Or something like her?”

“I guess.”

“Well, it’s time to choose. What form will the rest of your life take?”

You can pre-order The Church of Virtual Saints now from: 

Amazon UK: 
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