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.