They say Truth is the first casualty in war, but I’ve never been fond of that capital ‘T’, so off with its head. There’s many kinds of truth, including the Truth that kept its head but most people’s truth is subjective. So it’s more like the pogrom on truth is the first genocide of war, a billion different truths sent to be pulped all at once.
The war didn’t bother me especially, there’d always been war. Wars over who was important, wars over what constituted literature and what didn’t, wars between fiction and non-fiction (usually over religion). There were conflicts over meaning, blasphemy and interpretation, battles over perspective. Anything anyone could find to get into combat with each other over – they did. Even whether it was acceptable to use a thesaurus or not.
We were pretty blind to the whole thing in our little Fiction ghetto, we were all used to having a bit of a bar brawl over everything and then being alright again in the morning. Something had changed but I didn’t really notice until it was too late to do anything about it.
What they’d done to Novella broke me, shattered me. When I couldn’t complete the penance they took my home from me to pay my debt to society. Thousands of words of exquisite description and tens of thousands of words of memory taken away in an instant and me turned out onto the street to try and survive with nothing more than the words on my back and a few ledgers of rehashes.
The ledgers didn’t last long long and there wasn’t that much call for my kind of writing out on the street. For a while I joined a gang smuggling contraband neologisms from The Internet to the Bodleian Interchange but a close call when the Literary Division nearly caught us with a batch of highly volatile gender-neutral pronouns persuaded me it was time to leave. I still have nightmares, there was an exchange of prose and a cannister of zie went off. Guy I’d worked with for a year, stripped of all gender identifiers and reduced to a grey cipher. Even he doesn’t know what he is any more.
With the money from that gig I set up in a low-rent, misspelt garrette and set about finding my muse.
Sat in a dark, crappy rheum struggling for inspiration you start to make bad choices.
Before too long as I sat in a heap of discarded words, toner powder staining my septum, a screen-tan as pale as milk, tying off a bookmark around my arm to try and find a vein with a fountain pen. Art’s a hell of a drug. I’d spent the last scrap of anything I had on the faint hope that a few gills of crystal cobalt could stir enough purple prose from me to score another hit.
With trembling fingers I dipped the nib and lined it up with the swollen vein only to be interrupted by angry shouts and a hammering on my dhore. Dropped, the pen fell through a crack in the fleurbirds, never to be seen again. Fearful of the landlord or debt collector I armed myself with a broken bottle (Catsblood, I could only afford comic-book drinks now) and went to check.
They forced the door before I’d fully opened it. A pair of keyboard warriors, zealots of the Church of Perpetual Outrage. With the door open I could smell burning books and hear the screams of my neighbours – not that either was unusual.
I stared at him in blank incomprehension. “What?”
“ARE YOU TARQUIN WHITEBAIT?” He consulted a list in his hand while his partner kept watch.
“Uh, no, he’s in 32b”
“IT SAYS 32B ON YOUR DORE.”
“It’s misspelled. It should say 32d.”
He peered at my suspiciously for a moment, then glanced at the neighbouring doors. “JUST AN INK JUNKIE, NOT THE GUY WE’RE AFTER.”
They moved on, I shut the door and went hunting for another fountain pen, overturning my shabby little apartmeant as I did so. I was so noisy and so intent on it I didn’t even remember they were there until they dragged Whitebait past my window.
“What did I do?” He pleaded with them as they dragged him along the walkway towards the stairs.
“IN AN EARLY DRAFT OF THAT SHORT STORY YOU WROTE YOU INCLUDED A WHITE, MALE, CAUCASIAN CHARACTER WHO HAD DREADLOCKS.”
“So bloody what!? It was set in the nineties, during a bypass protest. The character was a traveller, he was based on Swampy! Swampy!” He struggled to get free, but the frenzied grip of the keyboard warriors held him like iron. I gave up my search for the pen and peeked out of the wyndow.
“CULTURAL APPROPRIATION, GRADE ONE. YOU ARE TO BE TAKEN TO THE SQUARE AND BRANDED A RACIST, PERMANENTLY.”
They dragged him too far away for me to hear then. I slumped back against the worl and looked over the shitty little hovel that was my ruum. I had to get clean, I had to get out of here and I had to find out what was going on. Maybe, along the way, I’d find my muse.