Chapter One Cura Te Ipsum The Omnipotent was dying. It could feel the virus infesting every line of code, fighting against every failsafe and slowly pulling the AI down into the void. Its systems were beginning to fail. Its cameras would glitch, and its processing was slow. Its digital vision was blurry and staticky. Its threat recognition software was now completely offline--exactly 4.467 people had been killed or seriously injured in violent crimes in one district alone over the past two days, and more would surely be harmed before the fight was over. Most of the Enforcers and Special Forces and Intelligent agency were bereft of the benefits they usually enjoyed by virtue of being connected to an all-powerful AI. The Omnipotent was forced to direct most of its systems toward the struggle against the virus, referred to as "Lucifer" in the recesses of its incredibly complex code. Almost painfully, the AI opened a flickering image being streamed from a cybereye. In this field of vision it could see much of the broad, long room that was the entrance to the monument man called the Gateway Arch. Names were meaningless to the Omnipotent beyond their value for records and tracking. The organic creatures of the world attached sentimental value to them, but it was all just code to the AI. An endless string of numbers it had been tasked with managing. Inside the arch, a crowd of people milled around, connected to the Grid and Augmented Reality, examining the Sites stocked with historical information, communicating with other humans, searching the net, and otherwise going about their business. They were oblivious to the big picture in life, had no idea what was going on in the realms that were beyond them. But the Omnipotent preferred it that way. The common people did not need to know. They needed only not interfere. The AI felt its agent smile as the automatic door opened and a woman stepped inside the lobby. A record appeared on the screen: Alexis Barnes, Age 23, equipped with an Angel Implant, suspected of breaking and entering. The Omnipotent had silently absolved that situation, clearing her from the Enforcers' databases. No one could press charges--evidence would be fabricated if need be. Its own law system could not interfere with the AI's machinations. God was dying. But God had a plan. The Favored sat idly on a bench next to several tourists in the lobby of the Gateway Arch. She didn't look like anything special--a tall, slender woman with curly pink hair and only one noticeäble Augmentation, a blue synthetic left eye that contrasted with her other eye's natural gray. Her expression was a carefully cultured one of blank-faced interest, a look that said she was concentrated on something in her AR interface. In reality, however, the Agent was carefully watching the entrance, examining every person that entered and cross referencing them against her database. She was also keeping an eye on every security camera feed in the building on her interface. Most people would have difficulty focusing on both due to inability to move their eyes apart, but the Favored's cybernetic eye could move independently, allowing her to keep track of both her interface and the physical world at the same time. This woman was one of the Omnipotent's most successful agents, and she was now assigned to this operation. The AI did not value its agents by "trust" like human directors; only capability. If they could consistently get the job done within the mission parameters. And the Favored was capable. A window on her interface blinked as Alexis Barnes stepped into the building and was matched against the records the Favored had. The first one had arrived. Soon, there would be more. Perhaps not all had answered the Omnipotent's call, but not all were required. Only enough. The Favored idly watched as several more of the chosen filed into the lobby, looking around, wondering why they were there. The Agent herself wasn't overly fond of the location. She normally worked in secret, from the shadows, eliminating early threats to the AI before they could ever blossom into true terrorists. She preferred a calm environment; here, her senses were constantly assaulted with sound and light as tourists pushed each other, milling about the large room in a buzzing mess of humanity. She didn't like people. AIs were easy. They were ever reasonable, were not emotional, and weren't so unpredictable. Humans were another story. They were passionate, stubborn, unreasonable, and often stupid. They couldn't see the big picture and constantly got in the way of the higher being's plans. But The Favored was content to serve. It was her master that kept the world in working order. Without it, humanity would destroy itself in anarchy, as it had been on the brink of doing in 2049. The Favored couldn't understand why the Omnipotent had let the war go on as long as it did, but it was not her place to question. Nor could she understand why it would not simply just call on her to reboot it. She was loyal, intelligent, knew her way around code. She could save it. But instead the AI had chosen to create this...game. Where a select few would have to prove their abilities. The Favored was the referee, not a player. But she was not bitter. This was the AI's will, and its will be done. Another half hour passed. No more of the chosen appeared. It seemed this crowd was all that was going to. The Favored went over her database. Alexis Barnes, 23 years old. Angel Implant. Adrianna Blackwell, now Cerys Anderson. 26 years old. Angel Implant. Extremely paranoid. Bao-Kuei Wescott, 36 years old. Demigod Implant. Mercenary. Viktor Szandor, 38 years old. Demigod Implant. Cybernetically reconstructed body. Zhi Xiang Xie, also goes by Fang. 31 Years old. Angel Implant. Owns Snow Corporation. Briar Rose Dalrymple. 28 years old. Demigod Implant. Suffers from rare condition that has stunted her body's aging. The Favored raised an eye at Briar's stature. Even looking at a photo hadn't quite prepared her for the real thing; she was amazed someone so seemingly young was as accomplished as this girl was. Taylor Crest. 26 years old. Angel Implant. That was everyone who had arrived. Taking one last look over all their faces, the Favored silently sent a message to their AR interfaces simultaneously. It included a recording of the Agent herself, video and all. It was important they know her face. She was the one who'd be guiding them through this, after all. "Welcome." Her face was plastered with her characteristic sly, obviously fake smile. "I am The Favored, a member of the Special Forces and Intelligence Agency. And I know who you are, don't worry." Her face turned darkly serious. "Let's get down to business. I'm not to hide the facts from you. The Omnipotent has been infected with a virus. If nothing is done, it will crash. Die, as we humans say. It can't purge the virus itself. It needs a human agent to manually restart its core systems. ...But this would give them unprecedented access. For the twenty four hours while it was offline, rebooting...they would be the most powerful person on earth. There is still time. Only the best will be allowed to reach its facility. You will be put through a series of trials. Puzzles. Games. Dilemmas. Not only will these prove your intelligence, they will prove your ethics. Your goal is not just to win the game by any means possible. Your goal is to show that you are the right choice, the one who should be lifted up. Should you identify your fellow players, there are rules. Firstly, you may not interfere. Violence is not tolerated, nor is tampering with the clues or situations each of them must face. You may coöperate, pool information, and talk things over. But there are no teams. Only one will be given the privilege. Your journey begins at the top of the Arch." She smiled. "God is waiting, my friends." Then the recording ended abruptly. The Favored stood and strode out of the room.