At the back of the terminal, a man stood up and tossed aside the newspaper he was reading. As he walked toward the gate, he unfolded a pair of diaphanous golden wings from his shoulder blades, which were incongruous against his drab business suit. “About time,” he muttered as he smoothed the creases in his wings and pants. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on his way out the gate’s gilded wooden door. On the other side of the frosted pane, the man floated off the ground and drifted up until he disappeared out of sight.
“Now arriving, Gate Seven Track Four. Laura Smith. Arriving at Gate Seven, Track Number Four. Laura Smith.”
A moment later, a similarly-attired man entered the terminal, doffing his black homburg and tucking his wings neatly out of sight. Smith looked around and waved at a pair of men sitting at a corner table, then headed over to them. A pale light through the dingy windows was just bright enough to illuminate the card game they were playing. As Smith pulled up a chair, the others grunted in greeting but didn’t look up.
“How’d it go?” one of them asked around the cigar stub in his mouth.
Smith shrugged. “You know. Like pulling teeth to get these people to write. A sentence here, a nicely turned phrase there. You can’t get a decent chapter out of some people anymore.”
The fellow across the table slapped down a card and picked another one off the deck. “Tell me about it. These kids have no discipline, I tell you. Back when I was musing for Jane Austen . . . ”
The man with the cigar rolled his eyes. “Oh great, here we go again. Give it a rest, Jane. Or wait, who are you now?”
“Doesn’t matter. No one you’re ever going to hear about. Thinks he’s a poet because he sees symbolism in a Pabst beer can, fer chrissakes.” Jane slapped another card down in disgust. “Lousy freakin’ hand.”
“What do you think, Smith?” asked Cigar. “You used to muse for the best of the best. They assigned you to the Beats, and half the Enlightenment was your clientele. What’s the real state of affairs out there?” Cigar waved his stub around like he was shooing a fly. “Me, I ain’t left this place in generations. I keep getting assigned to all these people who don’t do anything creative their whole lives.”
Smith took a pack of cigarettes out of his blazer and shook one free. He snicked open his lighter and waited to take a good drag off the slender stick before responding. “It’s pretty bad,” he finally agreed, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “My current client has a lot of talent, but she’s really insecure. Petrified of what people will think of her novel. Thing is, it’s actually a pretty good story.”
“‘Oh, look at me, I’m so insecure,'” Jane mocked. “‘I’m a poor insecure unappreciated novelist.'” He snorted as he studied his hand and moved the cards around. “Look around this place. Some brilliant talent here. Most of us have been cooped up here so long, entire schools of literature have come and gone without us. Now it’s all fancy algorithms and software and arcs and triangles. Gimmicks, all of them.”
Cigar nodded vigorously. “Damn straight. I see my writer apply for an MFA, I start packin’ my bags,” he said. “‘Cause he’s not calling me anymore after that.”
Smith tried to laugh dismissively. “Come on, guys. It’s not that bad.”
Jane pointed a finger in Smith’s face. “Laugh all you want, Chuckles. But at least you got someone who knows to call on her muse. The writers I used to work with would bleed on their typewriters just to get that one perfect adjective. Now they toss and turn all night over whether their stuff is search-engine optimized.” Jane lilted his voice and flopped his wrist, then waved in disgust. “I’m a muse, not a damn wet-nurse.”
Cigar pointed to a dark corner way in the back, where a scruffy crew of muses barely stirred. “At least we’re not design muses like those poor stiffs. People are still writing, at least. But man, since the 1960s most of those guys haven’t had a day’s work from any of their clients. And since the web?” He made a whistling sound and shook his head sadly, then went back to paying attention to his cards.
Smith looked up at the travel poster on the marble wall above them, lit by the squares of sunlight in the arched ceiling. A fairy-tale muse, looking like something Disney would have created. “Make the World a Better Place One Person at a Time,” it said in faded red lettering below the image. “Be a Muse.” It was seeing a poster very similar to that when he was just a cherub that inspired him to go into muse training over the objections of both his parents. Most of the time, he had been happy with the work. Generations of writers of all kinds had called on him as an unseen collaborator, to nudge and guide when necessary, urge and threaten when required. But always welcomed, and sometimes begged for. He had been coach, confessor, and friend to many people, and his track record was such that he usually had his pick of assignments.
But for a long time, he had seen the station filling up with more and more unwanted muses, as fewer and fewer people called on them. Had the world really begun to forget what it meant to be creative?
Smith tossed his cigarette stub on the floor and ground it out. “They’re going to remember us again,” he said firmly.
Jane snorted. “What makes you think so?”
Smith shrugged again, but this time smiling as if at a well-kept secret. “We’ve been in this business for a long time. We’ve seen it come and go, wax and wane, lots of times. Remember the Middle Ages?”
Cigar and Jane both grumbled in reluctant agreement.
“Well, what was it about the Middle Ages that made the Renaissance possible?”
Cigar rolled his eyes. “Stress. Oppression. The usual. Look, we all know the formula. Real art comes from suffering of some kind, whether it’s personal or societal.”
“Yeah,” said Smith. “And fretting over bad SEO or declining hit rates isn’t real suffering.”
“So,” Smith said, as if the point was perfectly obvious. “Look at all the real suffering going on now. And there’s plenty more to come. Business should be picking up again in no time. Come on fellows, show a little faith.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” the old saying goes, “because someday you might get it.” Creativity, economists tell us, is a leading indicator of the health of any society. But what they fail to appreciate is that the relationship is an inverse one. If you really want to increase creativity, you might be surprised — and not a little distressed — to learn what the price will be. An object lesson in zero-sum economics, courtesy of . . . The Event Horizon.