Only from one side can there be any question here of illuminating the fact that sin is a position. ...A constituent of sin is the self as infinitely potentiated by the conception of God, and thus in turn it is the greatest possible consciousness of sin as a deed. This is the expression for the fact that sin is a position; the positive factor in it is precisely this, that it is before God.
-- Kierkegaard, A Sickness Unto Death
"Church records confirm that this man is indeed a Newborn," Gale said to the others seated at the tactical planning table, his voice flat and mechanical. "The timestamp on his creation profile is twenty days ago, ten days after the manifestation of the Atma phenomenon and our defeat of the Vanguards."
The table's three-dimensional projector displayed the bust of the red-haired escapee from the Wolves, as well as a simple readout showing his combat capabilities and the name of his Atma. The man himself, known as Lupa, sat at the table beside the Embryon leaders, his shoulders drawn in and face screwed up in discomfort.
Lupa had appeared in Embryon territory with a group of individuals claiming to be fugitives from the Wolves. The rest of the group was now being kept in a holding facility. Although they had showed no sign of hostility, it was clear that something had them more than a little frightened, and the Embryon leaders wanted to get to the bottom of their story as soon as possible.
As the fugitives' leader and de facto representative, Lupa had been interrogated by both Gale, the Embryon's bishop, and Serph, the tribe's leader. The shock trooper Heat had invited himself into the proceedings, as well. Seeming to accept that he was, for the time being at least, a prisoner, Lupa now set hunched in his chair, both hands in plain view on the armrests. His sharp eyes peered out from beneath thick, bushy eyebrows, calmly and fastidiously taking stock of his situation. He met the penetrating stares directed his way with a resolute intensity of his own, looking both ready and willing to repay any physical mistreatment with the same in equal measure. Yet he remained calm and quiet, if not for his own sake, then for that of the fellow Wolves he had brought along with him.
Once again, Serph thought about the man called Lupa he had known before -- his own former leader, who had looked exactly like this Lupa -- and reminded himself that this man couldn't possibly be him. "His Atma is called Cerberus?" Serph asked. "I haven't heard of that one."
"I have conducted a search, and found no one else in possession of said Atma," Gale said. "Its combat capabilities suggest that it is on par with those of the ranking members of our tribe. It is very likely a type of High Atma; however, the other Newborns who accompanied him possess only Lesser Atma. For a Newborn, he is unusually powerful."
"You're certain you don't remember anything?" Serph asked the prisoner. "About us?"
"I'm sorry," Lupa replied with an apologetic shrug. "I don't remember anything before the moment they ushered us out through the Temple gates and into the Junkyard with the others. I was already in possession of my Atma at that point. One of the first things we did was to enter Wolves territory; after they took us into custody, we joined up with their tribe. But then it wasn't long before we were forced to flee here."
He paused and turned his attention to Serph. "Why are you asking me these questions? If you're suggesting that you and I have met before, I have no memory of it."
Heat growled under his breath as he stood leaning against the wall, and it was all Serph could do to keep himself from screaming in frustration. "You're Lupa," he insisted, his voice low and level. "You, Heat, and I used to be a tribe together, just the three of us."
Gale flashed him a concerned, questioning look, but Serph ignored it and pressed on. "You were our leader. Our first leader. You took Heat and me on as Newbies, and you hammered the fundamentals of combat and tactics into us."
"What?" Lupa looked beseechingly from Heat's fiery gaze to Serph's determined, silvery stare before shaking his head and sinking back into his chair. "That doesn't make any sense. I only remember as far back as leaving the Temple. I can say for sure I've never been the leader of a tribe, and I don't recall taking on any other members, either. What happened to this 'Lupa' you're talking about now?"
"He's dead," Heat grunted.
Serph gritted his teeth behind pursed lips. "He was killed in battle, shot dead by an enemy sniper. We managed to find the leader of the enemy tribe on the battlefield and take him out before the Church issued their cease-fire order. Once that order came, Lupa's tribe -- your tribe, the Embryon -- was dissolved, since you'd been killed in action. But we reformed the tribe, with only a leader and a single follower, and kept its legacy alive. This was all a long time ago, though, before we had Atma."
The scenario that played out in his dreams came back to him with remarkable clarity. A tank barreled in towards their position. He hurled a grenade. There was a spray of blood. The muzzle of a rifle poked out from within a bunker. A hand signal waved him on. A broad-shouldered man hopped out of the trench ahead of him and began to charge -- then staggered, stricken. A scream of despair tore its way out of Serph's throat...
"If this 'Lupa' of yours died so long ago, how could I be him? Do I look that much like him?"
"You more than just look like him", Heat spat.
Serph nodded in agreement. "Your face, your body, your voice -- even the way you move are all exactly the same. I'm willing to bet that your physical capabilities and your combat prowess are the same, too. Plus there's the fact that you have a High Atma. Thus far, only tribe leaders or high-ranking lieutenants have been in possession of those."
"But the fact remains that he is a Newborn. His production timestamp confirms it," Gale pointed out calmly. "When individuals in the Junkyard die, they ascend to the heavens and are taken in with the clouds; from there, they fall back to the earth as rain, which is collected by the Church and washed clean of its karma before being given life again in the form of Newborns. There are no recorded instances of an individual's abilities or physical appearance being carried over from a previous incarnation. With the exception of bishops, all Newborns are created with roughly equivalent beginner-level capabilities. While personal judgment and other variances in ability begin to emerge later on, there are no reports of any Newborns inheriting the name and appearance of an individual who has already died, nor is there any record of a Newborn possessing capabilities on par with those of a tribe leader."
Gale pressed a series of keys. The data scrolling across the screen stopped, and one of the lines in the file of deceased combatants opened into a display window. Lupa gasped in surprise and shifted in his chair. Serph stiffened, and he could hear Heat nearby, swallowing a breath.
The screen showed a man with dull red hair, Lupa's spitting image, differing only in the color of the tribal markings on his cheeks -- and the accompanying data. Underneath the various numbers that recorded his personal measurements and combat experience, in red letters, was the word 'DECEASED'. The date of death was more than five years in the past.
"I just performed a search on Church casualty records," Gale said, looking up at the monitor as he finished typing. "This does indeed appear to be the same person. There is no appreciable difference in vital statistics. I cross-referenced the data with our own readings, and beyond the differences in attire and markings, the two are completely identical. There are no other records of a Newborn inheriting both the appearance and abilities of a deceased combaant to such a perfect degree."
"What does this mean?" Lupa said, flustered. "There was another me that already died? And I was reborn as a Newbie but with his body and abilities? Does that happen?"
"Until now, such a thing was not possible; however, since the manifestation of the Atma, we have seen a number of things occur that should not be possible. Perhaps the Church has made a change to the Newborn production system, or some type of bug has cropped up in it. I have placed an inquiry with the Church about this matter, but their response stated only that they do not acknowledge any abnormality pertaining to the Newborn in question -- that is to say, the current you. I am forced to surmise that the Church is either hiding something from us, or the Church itself lacks a full understanding of what is happening."
"Could this be another one of the changes the Church has made?" Serph asked.
"Unlikely. The fundamental purpose of creating Newborns is to bolster the fighting forces of the different tribes. The core tenet of the Junkyard is that only those who can learn and adapt are able to hone their abilities and survive, and from there come together to form tribes and strive for dominance. To have Newborns with capabilities equivalent to a seasoned tribal leader would upset the very balance of competition itself. It is difficult to believe that the Church would intentionally allow such a thing. There is the possibility, however, that the being known as Angel has manipulated the circumstances to such an end."
"I don't know. I don't think even Angel would go so far as to change the fundamental rules of the Junkyard," Serph said. "The Church may not have explained its reasoning for giving us our Atma, but the basic nature of what we're doing hasn't really changed."
The goal was still to fight, to kill, and to be victorious. But now the victors would literally consume the losers in order to grow even more powerful. Serph thought back on the words of the mysterious voice that called itself Angel.
"Atma is the power of demons, as well as your Asura forms. It is the vital force of your true selves. As you do battle and devour the flesh and blood of those you defeat, your power will grow stronger."
"The strong survive, and the weak are weeded out," Serph said. "That's how the average level of combat prowess in the Junkyard improves; the only thing the presence of Atma has done is make this principle more clear. To release Newbies that already possess higher-level capabilities seems to run counter to the Church's goals. Their aim has always been for us to improve our abilities on the whole through fighting each other; if they could make Newbies with a higher baseline level of ability, they would've done that from the start. They want to hone and temper their soldiers through constant competition until they wind up with someone poweful enough to vanquish any opposition and stand supreme among the rest."
"What you are saying then, sir," Gale said, "is that it was not the Church's intention that Lupa be created?"
"Stop saying 'created' like that," Serph snapped, and then immediately regretted it.
Gale looked at him. "Is there some problem with my chosen terminology, sir? Newborns are all created by the Church."
"That's not the point," Serph muttered. "Never mind. Forget it." Looking over at the confused prisoner sitting across the table, all Serph could think was that the man who'd died five years ago had come back to life. The memory of his old leader was still fresh, even after all this time.
The word 'created' made Serph think of the equipment supplied by the vendors, or the medical supplies and weaponry they used to outfit themselves. He wasn't sure why Gale's use of the term bothered him so much, but the earnest feeling he had that Lupa had come back from the dead somehow made the word seem inappropriate.
Heat's expression was unreadable. He had slunk into the corner of the room, his face masked in shadow as he shifted his gaze from Gale to Serph to Lupa and back again.
Serph went on. "Maybe some irregularity really has started to crop up within the Church. The hole that suddenly appeared down in our storage area, the one Lupa came out of -- what's the story with that?"
"I have sent a number of scouts in to investigate," Gale replied. "It leads to an underground sewer system, or something of the like. I believe that the water flowing through it is the same as the rain. The fact that it runs from Vishuddha to Muladhara leads me to believe that it must extend to other territories as well. My best conjecture is that it is a network of pipelines that collects the Rain of the Dead that falls across the Junkyard and channels it to some location underneath the Temple for purification and rebirth."
"It would have to be enormous, then," Serph said. "So why didn't anyone know it existed before now?"
"I have a theory on that," Gale said. He called up a series of images on his monitor. "It is my belief that we -- meaning all of the Junkyard's inhabitants -- were until recently subjected to some sort of perception filter."
"It is simply a means for the Church to keep things hidden, to prevent us from seeing facilities or information they do not want us to see, or to prevent us from realizing that we had seen something previously." Gale continued to work at his console, displaying a number of images taken by the recon team of the interior of the sewer system, as well as results from analysis of the water flowing through it.
The pictures showed a sewer that was far more open and expansive than what Serph had been imagining. A wide stream of water ran beneath a smooth, high ceiling, framed by narrow walkways on either side. There was little in the way of illumination, save for an occasional pale, blue light glimmering through the murk. The presence of the walkways implied that someone -- likely agents of the Church -- was meant to traverse these tunnels. Was this network designed to allow them to come and go unseen by the reigning tribes and other denizens of the Junkyard? There was no other obvious reason for such hidden passageways.
"As a bishop, part of my own unique conditioning includes a type of perception filter; it omits extraneous factors from my thought process in order for me to prioritize the continued existence of my tribe. The very fact that I am currently able to objectively remark on my conditioning this way is itself proof that said filter is no longer in place; until now, those who had been subjected to such mental and sensory suppression were made unaware of it."
"Another side-effect of our Atma?"
"Very likely," Gale said, typing away at a second control panel.
Heat finally broke his silence. "Forget all that for right now." He nodded vaguely in Lupa's direction. "Our bigger problem is this strange... whatever-it-was that took out the Wolves and Vishuddha. That's what I want to hear about."
"Me too," Serph agreed. There was nothing to be gained right now by arguing back and forth about who -- or what -- Lupa really was. First and foremost, the tribe needed to get a better grasp on the unusual circumstances that brought him here in the first place. "Whatever destroyed Vishuddha might come our way next -- and not just over land, but possibly through this network of underground tunnels. Keeping watch on the surface alone won't suffice." Serph sighed. "As if we didn't have enough to deal with right now."
Serph turned to face Lupa. "So tell us about this thing that laid waste to Vishuddha."