People are the eternal hypothesis of something, just like the non-phenomenalizing of static mechanics, people should discard the objectivity of people."
– Yi Sang
"Next station, Cisauk."
The sound of the train's PA system barely pierced through Ranji's earphones. The young man was adrift in his own thoughts as he stepped off the train, walked up the escalator to tap his e-card, and left the station. His face was clouded with an air of misery as he checked his bank account.
"40,000 rupiah. I'm going to starve again." Ranji's thoughts raced through his mind as he checked his bank account. "Maybe Pak Moes will have some cheap gorengan for me to buy."
Ranji himself was never the type to shine. In fact, he found some comfort in the misery he dwelled in. His dead-end job as a barista halfway across the province in Northern Jakarta didn't help with his financial situation, and his pay was more often than not late. It had been two months since he was last paid by the owner, and with the bare amount of money he had, he could only describe his current situation as halfway dead.
"I think I'll just photosynthesize again."
Ranji walked through the narrow roads, past the row houses and the warungs, as he continued to march on, despite his growling stomach. As he reached the main street, he spotted a figure coming out of a nearby abandoned house.
It was a girl, no older than himself, grasping onto her neck tightly. Ranji immediately ran towards her to help.
"Miss, are you alright?"
She did not answer, but there was clear fear in her eyes. Without any hesitation, Ranji picked her up.
"I'll bring you to the lobby, just to be safe!"
However, as he walked into the main road, a loud bang and the whistle of a bullet passed him by. Ranji looked over his shoulder and saw a large man carrying weapons of all kinds, wearing camouflage gear, and aiming at the girl.
"It's best if you let her go," the man declared.
"Sh-shit," Ranji thought to himself.
A few people from a nearby warung came out to see the commotion, only to be met with a storm of bullets. Ranji glanced behind him to see a river of blood flowing from the dead men lying on the road.
Ranji looked at the man as he continued to open fire towards the pair; he mustered up whatever strength he had, only to feel a strange power surging through him, letting him escape to the front gate of the apartment complex.
"Golf, this is Petr. We found not one, but two."
"That's very good," the voice calmly said from the walkie-talkie, "spare no survivors."
Petr continued to walk towards the apartment building, opening fire towards the front gate security and slowly catching up to Ranji and the girl. With a quick swivel and a pull of the trigger, the front gate's security guard was killed, and only crimson blood trickled onto Petr's boots.
Ranji turned his head only to see a bullet scrape past his hair ever so barely. Adrenaline immediately rushed even faster through Ranji's blood vessels. With one last drive, enveloped by that strange energy once more, he lunged towards the apartment lobby.
"Pak! There's a shooter out there!"
Before the security guards in the building could respond, another hail of bullets dyed the lobby in a thick red.
"Hands up, I need you to hand yourself and that woman over."
"No!!" Ranji stammered past his words, "go away!"
"I must bring you back alive."
Petr laid down his gun and approached Ranji before a burst of wind suddenly struck. Ranji put the girl down and raced towards the lobby door to see Petr's body face down on the ground, half of his face scraped by the asphalt into a pulp. Standing next to the body was a woman wearing a pair of glasses; her shoes emitted a light smoke as she wiped away some of the blood on her glasses. Immediately after, all of the windows on the apartment building clattered and cracked from the sonic boom, raining shards onto the apartment lobby.
"You alright there, boy?"
"Y-yeah. What just happened?"
"As much as I'd tell you, it's a matter of public saf—" the woman stopped for a second, spotting a strange mark on Ranji's shoulder, glowing slightly. "Actually, I'd be able to tell you if you can visit the Nusantara Technical University campus tomorrow. I feel like it'd be easier to explain it there along with my higher-ups."
She walked over to the girl, still unconscious, then looked at the mark on Ranji.
"Lena's safe at least," she turned her attention to Ranji, still standing above the pools of blood, "I'll get a cleanup crew and make a report, so this should be the least of your worries for now. Is there any way I can make it up to you?"
"I—" Ranji stood perplexed at the woman's demeanor, "I don't know."
"Look, come over to campus tomorrow and tell the security that you have a meeting with Aletheia Renata, alright? We can decide on your payment tomorrow."
"Payment? Kak Renata, I think that's a bit overkill."
"It's fine; it's on me. Don't humble yourself too much," Thea said, looking at him with a stern look. "I'll tell you right now, people are going to hunt you down because you've seen things you're not supposed to see. So if you want to live, please put some trust in me."
Thea waved goodbye to Ranji, carrying Lena on her back. Ranji stood there, confused, but the shock was still there. He exhaled and decided to go up to his apartment. As the door to his room cracked open, the windows to his apartment were completely shattered due to Renata's explosive entrance. Ranji squatted for a moment and looked at the state of his apartment.
"I'm gonna have to ask for even more overtime, aren't I?" he wondered.
Ranji went into the bathroom to wash his blood-stained face. "Why me?" he kept asking himself.
"I can't really say no to her offer, right?" Ranji thought to himself as he stared into his own reflection. "It's her thank you, after all."
"Why did I forget to eat, why am I such an idiot?!!" Ranji shouted in his mind, "this is a bougie campus, no way in hell they're gonna have anything affordable for me to eat, the Gojek here is already 30 thousand rupiah, I only have 10 thousand to my name now."
Ranji limped towards the entrance of the campus and towards the information table at the lobby. He slumped himself over the table, head resting on the table.
"Good morning, Kak. How may I help you today?" the clerk asked.
"Renata, I need to meet someone named Renata, I think her name is Adelia Renata."
"Oh, you must be the guest she informed me about, Kak Aletheia Renata is in a meeting right now so feel free to wait at the waiting room on the 5th floor, she's at that building to your right.
"Aletheia, I'd like to thank you once more for your vigilance. We could have lost Lena to the hands of the Kohntarkosz," the dean spoke to the rest of the meeting room. "Along with that, I heard a report about another person of interest you found?"
"Yes, pak Halim. Yesterday there was another person at the scene who was helping Lena. He had the same mark and the same energy signature as other subjects who also seem to be part of How to World Domination." Thea continued, typing on her laptop. "The last thing we want is for Kohntarkosz to find more of these people."
"Well, we have two at least," another man leaned back in his seat. "That's better than a straight zero."
"Ardianta, we still have to put some effort into trying to find more," Halim barked.
Wesley Ardianta was another lecturer and instructor at the university, renowned as one of the most powerful Ludens in the world, outclassing even the already formidable Thea.
"Of course, pak Halim. I understand the sentiment, but we have to find a better way to take care of these people. I can't always fight, and neither can Thea. We may be Ludens, but we're still people first and foremost."
"You're correct, though for now we're already greatly lacking in personnel. You're already assigned to Peacekeeping and Incarnation Hunting, and Thea is busy with her research into How to World Domination genealogy. I'll assign Antonius, Wicaksono, and Tarigan to this issue, though I'll need to talk to them beforehand."
"What about the National Association of Ludens? Surely the higher-ups care about us," Thea glanced at pak Halim and Ardianta.
"Thea, they can't even give two hoots about our issues," Ardianta grumbled. "I'd be a happier man if they did."
The meeting quickly adjourned as the clock struck 12 PM, and lunch break arrived for the lecturers of the faculty. Suhendra Halim left the meeting room first, while Thea and Wesley left together.
"Theaaa, I want to eat that ice cream ramen again!"
"Wesley, please, there was a straight-up brawl in my stomach after we ate that."
The two of them paused and stood in front of Wesley's cubicle. "Thea, please, I'm ready to use the last of my dogeza quota."
"Please don't waste your dogeza on me, goddamn it. Besides, I have to talk with that kid I told you about. He's probably already here."
"Ahhh, alright then. I'll probably go ask Sharlene or Willy out for lunch."
"I hope they say no; your taste in food is catastrophic at best and downright disgusting at worst."
"You ate edamame with ghee. Where do you even find a tub of ghee?!"
Wesley walked into his cubicle while gesturing a hush, "Join me for lunch and I'll tell you"
"That's gross, no thank you."
Thea continued to walk to her table, spotting Ranji outside and calling him to come in. Ranji nervously walked over and stood behind Thea as the two sat in Thea's cubicle.
"So . . ." Thea tapped her forehead. "I forgot to ask your name."
"My name is Ranji Lingga Hutama, though most call me Ranji."
"So, Kak Hutama, I've discussed the matter with the rest of the rectorate staff, and as a thank you, we've decided to allow you to enroll into Nusantara Technical University if you have no sort of previous arrangements with other academic institutions."
"I- uh," Ranji stumbled over his words, "I only work part-time in Kelapa Gading, so I may have to go back and forth from time to time."
"That's alright. If you choose to accept, we are welcoming you to join the Ludens Training program. If you become involved with some missions, then we will also be able to pay you with some money."
The last few words of that sentence immediately perked up Ranji's ears. "Yes, absolutely! I'll try and make arrangements with my workplace first!"
"What about your parents?"
"Parents, I-I don't really know where they are."
"Do you have a guardian at least?"
"I don't think you want to be involved with my uncle; he hasn't paid me in weeks, and I barely have any money to my name."
"That's alright. We'll find a way to manage that. For now, I'll assign you a buddy to help you familiarize yourself around the campus. Her name is Kellyn Julianto; she's got bright yellow hair. You'd have to be blind to miss her."
"Alright, Kak Thea. Thank you very much!"
Ranji left the lift and landed back in the campus lobby, spotting Kellyn, who was exactly as Thea had described. Her clothes looked disheveled but clean, as if she had not put an ounce of effort into her appearance, but still, she looked rather beautiful.
"Kak Thea told me to be your buddy," said Kellyn. "She also told me to get you lunch since she said that she could hear your stomach growling during your talk with her."
Ranji stood frozen, forgetting about his hunger.
"Well, I guess something cheap? I don't have that much mo–"
"Thea is paying," Kellyn interrupted, turning her head. "Don't fret too much about it. The more you argue with her, the more energy you're going to lose, and that's no good!"
The two made their way towards the canteen, busy and bustling with students having their lunch break. They walked over to a table in the center hall, the long table sitting next to a pillar. Across the hall was an assortment of food stalls, and with a simple glimpse of the chicken noodle stand right behind where Ranji sat, he realized that the food was really out of his league.
"I can't do this, Kak Kellyn."
"Please, we're the same age. Don't call me Kak."
"True, but I'm not calling you by your first name."
"Can't be worse than my nickname?"
A group of girls passed behind Kellyn, calling out to her, "Hey KeJu!"
She turned her head and waved, then turned back her attention towards Ranji, snapping her fingers.
"Wow, they call you Keju?"
"Unfortunately, it's been like that for years. I'll get you a beef bowl; you can eat beef right?"
"Yes yes, that's all good. Just don't make it too expensive; I don't want to waste a stranger's cash."
After a short trip to the stall, Kellyn returned with two beef bowls with portions beyond Ranji's wildest dreams. "No wonder it's expensive," he muttered to himself.
"Speaking of, what's your name?"
"Ranji Lingga Hutama, though most of my peers call me Ranji or Ran."
"So, you're a Ludens too?" Kellyn asked, eating a spoonful of rice.
"Ludens? What's that?"
Kellyn then dropped the spoon. "Are you joking?"
"You accepted a scholarship to the Ludens Training Program, and you don't know what it is??"
"I heard money and didn't think of anything else?"
Kellyn took a moment to breathe, then took another spoonful of rice. "Unbelievable."
"W-what's a Ludens?"
"Have you ever felt a gravity, one that attracts you to people you feel as if they're sort of kindred spirits?"
"Not really, no," Ranji paused to eat. "Maybe once or twice."
"Ludens are people who 'play' with the forces of nature. Being able to use potential energy to manipulate and utilize the laws of nature and the universe to fight."
"Never had any superpowers, as if they're real in the first place."
Kellyn sighed, then massaged her forehead. "Give me your phone."
"Just turn it on and tell me the percentage."
Ranji hastily pulled out the phone from his pocket and turned on the display to show 72%. Kellyn pulled the phone away from him and stuck the tip of her index finger into the charging port, then closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she handed it back to Ranji.
"100%, you're telling me magic is real?"
"It's a matter of principles, or at least how you'd be able to manipulate these principles. When I was a kid, I'd accidentally shock myself while playing on those monkey bars. It took some checkups, but I was apparently an innate Ludens. If you're accepted into the program, you must've done something."
"I saved a girl named Lena from this gunman; apparently, that's grounds for a scholarship."
"But hey, who knows. You might have an innate power that you haven't unlocked yet. Like me and my Lightning Speed, it took a bit to get used to it."
"True, though I'd feel bad if I didn't have any powers."
Ranji took a bite of the beef while continuing to eat. To his shock, it was probably one of the best foods he'd eaten in weeks. To him, it felt like floating in a heavenly place, unperturbed by the terrible instant porridge and rice he had eaten for the past few weeks.
"Ran, why are you crying?"
"This food is so good–" Ranji continued to weep. "I miss eating things like this so much."
"Your parents don't let you eat things like this?"
"More like they abandoned me with my uncle. I have no idea where they live, and I work part-time at my uncle's place at Kelapa Gading."
"Ahh, I see. My condolences."
"Don't be! I want to be a little self-sufficient too." Ranji continued to eat the beef bowl.
"Speaking of the money thing, I don't think you should jump the gun too quickly," Kellyn commented. "You'd have to kill Incarnations, and that's not something easy to do."
"What's an Incarnation?"
"Okay," Kellyn said, clasping her left hand with her right, "you know the law of energy conservation, right? Energy cannot be created or destroyed."
"Incarnations come from a realm beyond ours called the Ultramarine, one that consumes energy created by humans and gives birth to Incarnations. Incarnations themselves are sort of manifestations of human will and thoughts, ones that have consumed too much energy and somehow manifested themselves as physical beings in our world." Kellyn paused to take another bite. "Usually, they're pretty simple manifestations such as 'Wonder' or 'Cadence,' but those are good things! People don't feel strongly about good things."
"So why should we get rid of them?"
"That's the thing; usually, if they're manifestations of good or positive things, then we can tell them to go back to the Ultramarine." Kellyn stretched her arms. "The problem comes when you fight things that people are afraid of. From abstract concepts like 'Grief' to things like 'Fire,' people are afraid of being burnt, people are afraid of feeling grief. These Incarnations can so easily kill; that's why there's a squad to get rid of them."
"Holy shit." Ranji rubbed his cheeks. "That's too heavy for lunch."
"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration," Kellyn continued while checking the notifications on her phone, "or at least that's how Frank Herbert put it."
"Well, if it's for some cash, then I should be strong enough to take them on in the future."
"Hopefully that's the case, Ran." Kellyn smiled back at him. "Once you're a Ludens, you'll realize that there's only a thin line preventing societal collapse. It's a necessary task burdened to us in exchange for our powers, or at least that's how I view it."
Kellyn then stood up, put away their food at a cleaning station, and extended her arm towards Ranji. "Come on, class is going to start. I believe you can do your best!"