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Letters From The Apocalypse: Chapter One

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Welcome to Letters from the Apocalypse!
This is a story I wrote in 2020, when the world was a kinder place (at least for us Sri Lankans). I wanted to take a mild break from science fiction and write something that looked more homeward.
Having done so, I’m releasing it as a series of emails to my readers. Welcome. Enjoy. Please share. I hope you have a laugh.

Chapter One
Narrator: ARUMUGAM
The man I’m hunting tonight is a Royalist.
That’s not my description of him: that’s his description of him. He’s forty-six, owns twelve different companies, has three children, one trophy wife and one mistress, and that’s how he introduces himself: “I’m a Royalist.” 
Even if nobody asks, it comes out within minutes. “You know, when I was at school (in Royal, you know)”. If he meets someone exceptionally well-spoken, the lines shift to, “So, you must have gone to Royal, then?”
His car has a school sticker on the back. The people he drinks with, the people he invests with, the swinger’s club down Havelock that he and his wife pretend not to attend - all of these people are, also, Royalists, or at least related to one by blood or marriage.
As far as he’s concerned, everyone else is vaguely second-class, except for the Thomians, who must be first-class because they’re just as obnoxious and regular enemies in the Royal-Thomian cricket matches. You can’t have a nemesis who’s your inferior. 
There he is, meeting someone. The official business is done; now they’re jawing. He has a permanent sotto voce going on, the kind that’s fused years of elocution lessons with the exaggerated ‘O’s of the Colombo accent, and manages to sound gossipy and magesterial at the same time. “Ah, sOO I met sOO-and-sOO; he’s from Royal too! One batch belOOw mine, you know, Mahiya’s class? You must know Mahiya (everyone knew Mahiya), his father was sOO-and-sOO’s cousin…” 
This is the kind of man that can pronounce brackets.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’ve got nothing against Royalists. In true Sri Lankan style, my best friend’s girlfriend’s ex-husband was a Royalist. He made a tidy sum from the tech industry and retired[1].
But riddle me this: how do men in Colombo Peter Pan their lives like this? It’s as if the school is the defining moment in life, and the man that continues - no matter how successful - is just a puppet, his strings pulled by the shadow of a boy he must have been. 
But our amusement must wait. Because the man I’m hunting tonight, if he is a puppet, is a very big one.
Royalist here has a shadow identity. Call him Supply Chain. Supply Chain’s specialty is seeing shortages. Products. Stocks. People. Politics. Doesn’t matter. Supply Chain sees demand. He’s basically the inverse of a classical economist. 
And that makes him and his paunch incredibly powerful in a way that only a very few people understand. 
Fifteen years ago, for example, he invested in construction. Everybody thought he was stupid: the smart money was in tourism and liquor licenses, easy cash. What they didn’t see was how much money he made when the tourism industry took off and every Tom, Dick and Kotalawa needed a bar, hotel or an office built. And then he made a killing again on apartments and land when people started flocking to the city. 
Seven years ago he started investing in Sinhala content startups. Nobody gave him the time of day in the beginning. Even when he started showing up at the various hobnobbing breakfasts for investors they thought he was dumb, that he’d fallen for the nascent tech-startup hippiespeak. The country already had media barons. The real game was in TV, radio, and print media, and the battle lines there had already been drawn.
But then social media became a thing, and a country with a 96% literacy rate found itself dumped head-first into the internet. Everything the old guard thought was a fad turned out to be the broadcast medium of the future. Radio spectrum? TV stations? Media licenses? Bah. The future was in Facebook groups that, harvested by teams of analysts and marketers, told companies what people actually want to buy, where, and how much; in Whatsapp 'news’ groups that pumped out product advertisement, gossip, controversy, burying or bringing forth whatever Supply Chain’s paymasters wanted; in Telegram groups that mixed ex-girlfriend nudes with political propaganda.
As a result, Supply Chain now runs one of the most powerful media operations in the country, reaching something like half of all Sri Lankan eyeballs on the Internet on a daily basis. Almost every single Whatsapp rumor and forward comes from either one of his two legit media corporations (swanky offices in World Trade Center, secretaries hired for their legs and accents) or his fifteen underground content production teams (mostly hungry young men who took Photoshop courses just after school and will do anything to avoid becoming three-wheel drivers).
Writers? Artists? He has legion. Thousands of Arts graduates with no jobs and no prospects line up outside his offices. This country has been producing them for decades.
And who, ultimately, does he serve?
Why, the most dangerous man alive today. Don Hector Dharmakeerti Kodithuwakku, the President of Sri Lanka. A man built from rumour and whispers and WhatsApp forwards. Make Sri Lanka Great Again, they said, and lo and behold there was a man who (suspiciously conveniently) came forward, brokering deals with business titans, shaking hands with the world.
But it didn’t happen, did it? No. Kodithuwakku and his cronies stripped and sold everything this country has to offer.
And when the collapse came, as it must, the playbook was identical. Blame it first on the minorities, then on the liberals, then the opposition, then on the poor and the destitute … and give speeches, of course, give great and well-meaning speeches that leave people cheering. Leave the stage before they remember the hunger in bellies and the gnawing anxiety of everyday life. And institute progroms. Against dissidents. Against activists. Against people dying of the unfairness of it all.
The Kodithuwakku, like every fucking elected politician in this country, is a cancer, not the cure. Once a tyrant, now a corrupt slave-king, he exists only to perpetuate his own existence [2].
And to this budget Hitler, Supply Chain is Goebbels. He is the ‘truth’ hammered day in and day out on social media, on instant messaging, on calls, that our nation is great and will be greater, that sacrifices must be made, that Singapore wasn’t built in a day. He is the whisper in your ear, convincing you that yes, that bullet is meant for you, and yes, if you love your country, you must take it.
And this is why Supply Chain has to die.
I’m not sure how his talent works. I like to think that in any other country he might have been investigated by now, or have become a tenure-track professor at some top university, sipping wine in the evenings and outplaying mathematicians and futures markets in the mornings, waiting for his Fields medal or his Nobel Prize. But here in Sri Lanka, Supply Chain is one of the biggest fish in a very small pond, a juggernaut built of loosely connected companies and handshakes and friends-of-the-family.
Neither his wife nor his other bedfellows know about Supply Chain: all they see is a rich, shallow man who works too hard and talks too much about being a Royalist. This shadow identity, so perfectly tuned to Colombo, and beneath it the superhuman, the homunculus in the skin, the ghost in the shell.
Either way, the Royalist persona will be the death of him. It makes him predictable. It lets me know in advance where he’ll turn up. Look at him. There he is, now. Stumbling out of the Galle Face Hotel. Five buddies, all equally drunk. There’s a girl holding him up - she looks young enough to be his daughter. 
Supply Chain’s talent must be working a bit, even if drunk, because he fumbles at her, then at his pockets. I can almost see him thinking car, car, car.
Here we are, sir. Here I am, rolling up in your silver Porsche Cayenne. Dark suit, dark mask. White gloves.
“Driving service, miss,” I say politely, reaching out a hand. My mask muffles my voice. “Everything’s paid for.”
He squints at me blearily.
It’s the white gloves that do it. You can get away with anything in this country if you wear white gloves. White gloves, brought here by the British, are such alien things in this hot, humid country that it only means two things: you’re either an infinitely superior servant or military police. They say their goodbyes - or rather, the girl does it, exchanging air kisses with leery older men trying to get a drunken grope in. 
We bundle Supply Chain into the back of the Porsche. The girl gets in front. I try not to look at her, but a glance shows me she’s older than I realized. Not a girl: woman. She gives me an address. Not one of his. Apartment building in Union Square. She taps the dashboard with a hand that shows the tell-tale mark of a wedding ring removed just for the occasion. Her dress is immaculate in that Singaporean way, where you look perfect no matter how humid it is. 
Sorry, miss. 
The Porsche purrs away. 
“Go fast,” she says. The slightly British accent she used for her goodbyes is gone now. In its place is a kind of toneless tiredness.
“Yes, ma'am.” I take the Porsche to fifty, sixty, seventy. We rocket past a police box. Nobody stops us: the unwritten law of the Sri Lankan police is that moving objects above a certain price tag belong to a class of people you do not want to fuck with. Not if you want a career. 
“Too many people out here tonight. Can’t be too careful.”
“Yes, miss.”
She turns around to make some sort of crooning noise at him. The night glides at us, with only the streetlamps as witness. The perfect moment. I act.
By the time she screams, it’s already too late.
I suppose this is where I explain myself. Very well. Not a huge fan of this gonzo journalism business, you understand: it’s a little too close to reality porn for me, a performance where the journalist’s narcissism overrides the subject. The best art is done with no comment by the artist. 
Still, I have to use the form, because I offer no objectivity other than my own. 
I’ll get to the point. People with abilities have always existed. Think over your history lessons. Think of how some people utterly dominate the narrative, even when they don’t really seem to have the kind of skills it takes. Think of the politicians, religious leaders, the entertainers you just can’t seem to avoid, even if everyone agreed their music is shit, their faith is charlatanry, and their morals are weathervanes. 
Hell, we have legends about these people. The dhasa maha yodhayo, the Ten Great Giants, and the guy who controlled them. Mahasona, the Great Fell, who went on even in death. Kalu Kumaraya, the Black Prince, the seducer. 
Those are the loud ones.
Now think about how you’ll meet someone at the bar, someone with such a wild fucking story that you never really see the full picture, just edges, whispered.
There’s an STF sniper who racked up 131 kills with an empty gun and became a barman after the war ended. There’s a diplomat who spent thirty years being shot, bombed and buried, not always in that order, but somehow it always turns out to be a body double. There’s a home baker who can make claymores out of dough and send them over by UberEats. There’s a monk who appears every five years in a different part of Sri Lanka; not a problem in itself, except he’s been doing it for three hundred years. 
Those are the quiet ones. They’re a lot more dangerous. 
What they do … call them superpowers, if you’re crass and American and grew up reading comic books. Call them potential if you’re into geekspeak. I’m a discreet operator: I think of them as talents. 
So. My name, my school, my social background: all irrelevant for now. Forget your social conditioning. I’m not interested in telling you who I’m related to. Suffice it to say that I’m one of these people.
I stepped out into the limelight in … ‘09? ‘10? It was the end of the war, a time of change, and while running I had some time to think. Had some time to reconsider my options. Reconnect with my upbringing, so to speak. Which brings us to tonight, this Porsche, and me about to do my thing.
To the woman on the front seat, the driver would have burst into white flame. She has one second to scream. Two. Then the flames turn liquid and slough downwards, leaving behind a face identical to the man passed out on the seat behind us. Hands. Shirt. Tie, completely askew. Tummy. If she’s very careful she’ll notice that the flames burn nothing. 
Dear god, the underwear is twisted. 
“What the fuck!” she screams, flailing at me. A clutch purse hits me on the ear.
“Shut up,” I say, “I’ll kill you.”
That shuts her up.
I settle into Supply Chain. It’s hard to explain. What I do isn’t just mimicry. It’s as if I take over the threads that make these lives, their stories, their memories, their place in this universe. I don’t just look like him: I am him. I am the tightness around the chest. I am the pride he takes in being a Royalist and knowing the right people. I am the cancer in his gut. I am the guilt, that constant low hum in the back of his mind, about being here, tonight, wondering what his wife thinks of him, wondering if she’d love him more if he just stopped all this. Intertwined with it, the arrogance, the entitlement, the she should be happy with what she gets, the frustration that nobody really understood him.
Don’t worry, buddy, I got you. 
Now his talent.
It’s not easy to hold onto people’s talents: most times I transform and am left with just a body and its memories.
What comes to me is a a weak simulacrum of what he must feel; strange and confused thing, an expression of hunger. My fuel tank. Hungry. The woman next to me. Hungry.
The shitty, faded out mall in Kollupitiya; hungry, demanding people, demanding a clientele infinitely bored by its very existence.
Right next door, a hotel, filled with the hungers of a thousand people. 
Aaaaah. This is … not difficult to control, but confusing.
The woman next to me is trembling. She’s shrunk back so far in the seat she’s almost retreated into her dress. “You’re one of them, aren’t you,” she says, her voice almost a manic shriek. “Do you- do you know what you’ve just done? Do you know who he is? Do you know what he’ll do to you, bastard?”
“I know,” I say. I trundle to a stop near a Pilawoos. Hunger. Hunger. Real hunger. This whole area.
“What’re you doing?” Brittle suspicion.
“Call a PickMe.”
A man opens the back door. Nods to me. Pulls out the drunk guy on the back seat. Closes the door. I order an Ice Milo and pay for it with two five thousand rupee notes. Cost of services, well worth it. I don’t know where the duplicates get dumped, and I don’t care. For all I know they end up as dolphin kottu.
“Call a PickMe. Go home.”
“Take me home. I can’t step out here dressed like this.”
I have to give her this: she’s had a man turn into a bonfire and then into her side hustle, and she’s right back to giving orders. She also has a point. Three men around a cheap Indian bike, swaying slightly, staring directly into our windscreen at her.
“Then drink this. You need sugar, or you’ll go into shock.”
Nobody sane refuses a free Ice Milo, no matter how important you think you are. She drinks it in silence all the way back to Union Place. We pull into her driveway. 
“You can become anyone?” 
“Anyone I touch, yes.”
“Can you become me?”
“Can you,” she licks her lips nervously. “Some people might find that interesting.”
I look up at those gleaming towers, those strange lives like hers, trapped like flies in concrete ointment.
“Some people,” I say, “are fucking weird.”
[1] He made a tidy sum from laundering money for various tech industry moguls and retired to translate Machiavelli into Sinhala.
[2] ‘Don’ to those businessmen, like Supply Chain, who suck up to him and support him, like feudal lords wooing a king; ‘Gal Dharmey’ to those who knew him when he ran liquor and weapons; the nth coming of Devanampiya Tissa to those traditionalists paid well enough to prop up his PR. 
Author’s notes
This is a work of fiction - and by ‘this’ I mean everything above this disclaimer. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Some coincidences, however, may make you think.
All artwork here is generated by Wombo Dream, one of many CLIP-based AI art applications. I’ve cropped out their logo because their terms of service forbid use of their trademarks. To understand how Dream works, I recommend this interview with Salman Shahid, who worked on the project.
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Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne @yudhanjaya

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