This next story is another one where I woke up one morning with it kind of already formed in my head. I think it’s because I’m working on the sequel to Where the Hell is Tesla?, and I’m delving pretty deep into the characters for the second time right now. Anyway, this story is about Horace Cho, the author of the way-too-popular science fiction series The Horatio Chronicles. After over thirty novels in the series, Horatio the Hero begins to take on a life of his own. Harmless, right? . Enjoy!
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“Horatio Breathed His Last”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
Horatio breathed his last.
That’s what he meant to write. But the words that flowed from his fingers, through the keyboard, and onto the screen were these:
Not on my watch!
He stared at the words, blinking, not believing. It was his hero’s famous catchphrase, always uttered right before the bad guy got sucked into the vacuum of space, or was sent off to the prison mines on Planet Nextor, or was otherwise dispatched. This time, it seemed, the threat was directed at him. He shuddered. Horatio wouldn’t go down easily. He cracked his knuckles and tried again.
Horatio breathed– Not on my watch!
What was happening? What was stopping him from killing his own creation? He wanted nothing more than to be done with Horatio the Hero. Enough was enough. The end had come years ago, and passed, and now it kept plodding along endlessly, lifeless, like a zombie. It was over. Over. Over. “Time to die, Horatio. Let me do it.”
His housekeeper passed his office at that moment, peered in. “You okay, Mr. Cho?”
“Um. Yes. Just thinking.” And he rose and headed for the back door, knowing when he started to mutter to himself it was time for a walk.
The walks allowed him to ponder the bigger picture, and appreciate the positives. It’s not that he hated Horatio – indeed, any hate had morphed a long time ago into a vague, dull resignation. No, in the beginning he loved Horatio. His first novel, Horatio’s Odyssey, was a joy. He even indulged in the youthful exuberance of naming the hero after himself, Horace Cho, budding young author, thinking a few random science fiction fans might read this first story online and think the play on the name was cute. He didn’t realize, couldn’t possibly at the time, that tens of millions of readers would come to know and love Horatio, and that each of his hundreds – maybe thousands? – of interviews would begin with some form of “cute” comment on the names Horatio and Horace Cho. Regret was too small a word for what he felt about the name.
But yes, Horatio’s Odyssey was a runaway hit. Somehow, against all odds, the manuscript fell off some slush pile somewhere, and into the hands of a young agent named Bill Baxter, who loved pulpy, short, action-based science fiction novels, preferably with a flawless hero. From there, again defying fate, the edited book found its way into the pages of a contract with Merriweather Press, and then miraculously onto the shelves of airport bookstores and Walmart. And within its first year, Horatio’s Odyssey had earned Horace north of half a million dollars.
Horace loved Horatio.
And the love affair lasted years. Horatio’s Odyssey led to Horatio’s Gauntlet, which led to Horatio’s Quest, and on and on, and the series grew to be called The Horatio Chronicles. Horace became a millionaire by filling in the blanks of the formula begun in the first novel: Horatio, friend and leader of men, traveled far to <name of distant planet here>, only to find <description of aftermath of terrible destruction here>. Using his superior intellect, he unearthed clues, identifying <name of evil villain here>. By banding together with <name of indigenous people here>, Horatio was able to <description of rising action leading to climax>. But at his most vulnerable moment, <name of evil villain here> nearly killed our hero. In a last-ditch effort, drawing on his bottomless wells of strength, Horatio yelled “Not on my watch!” and single-handedly vanquished <name of evil villain here>, sending him to < a) death by vacuum of space, b) prison mines of Planet Nextor, c) permanent frozen stasis, or d) the occasional redemption – option ‘d’ to be used sparingly>.
After the first dozen books, Horace grew tired of this writing-by-numbers, and started to ask deeper questions: What drove Horatio? Was there something in his past he kept hidden? Were there flaws, perhaps even terrible flaws, beneath his veneer of perfection? Did he have a larger character arc? An ultimate goal?
Bill Baxter had advice. “Don’t do it, Horace. You’ll kill the golden goose.”
“I don’t care. It’s dead already to me if I can’t grow, if I can’t make Horatio real.”
“I want to make him real.”
The question stopped Horace. But only for a moment. “Because… because he wants to be real. And we both deserve better.”
“Phooey. Don’t get too close to Horatio, Horace. Let him do his thing. You do your thing. And let your bank account do its thing.”
But in the end, Bill Baxter and Merriweather Press relented, and Horace breathed new life into the series. It turned out that Horatio was an orphan, from a human mother on Earth and an alien father who’d served a life sentence on Planet Nextor, and whose race was now extinct. Horatio’s great strength covered a deep void in his heart, a feeling of aloneness that couldn’t be set to rest. He yearned for a simple life, perhaps on a water farm on the Druter Belt, with a wife, a way to start a legacy of his own. He was never to have peace, however. People and races throughout the galaxy depended on Horatio for strength, leadership, and defense, and he loved them deeply, even though they didn’t realize the great weight they placed on his shoulders. His feelings grew more and more conflicted. He began to kill more of his villains – perhaps not only for justice, but to exact revenge, or to release some of the rage building inside him.
To Horace, Bill Baxter, and Merriweather Press’ great relief, the fans were ready for this change, and embraced it. Horatio’s audience grew to include not just the hardcore science fiction fans, but general market readers looking for a more complex hero and a richer story. Warner Brothers optioned the film rights to the series.
By the release of the thirty-fifth book in the series, Horatio’s Burden, the public was hungry for each new installment, and the initial printing of two hundred thousand copies sold out in pre-order.
“Thank you, Horace.”
“For what, Horatio?”
“For making me real.”
Horace had begun having conversations with his hero. It was harmless fun, allowed him to delve deeper into the creative process, and seemed to give the character a life of his own.
But then disaster struck. Horatio’s Burden was a colossal flop. In the story, Horace had given our hero a break, some time to steal away to his asteroid in the Druter Belt, taking a young maiden from Earth, Anna, as his bride. Soon they were with child, and the void in Horatio’s heart promised to be filled to overflowing. After a prison break on Planet Nextor required Horatio’s assistance, however, he returned home to find an escaped inmate in his home – and Anna and her unborn child dead. Beyond rage, Horatio rounded up every inmate in a galaxy-spanning trek, and created a new prison on a small asteroid in the Poppali System. Then, remorseless, he sent the asteroid, with all three thousand inmates, hurtling into the system’s sun.
Critics applauded Horatio’s Burden. The New York Times called it “dark and perfect.” But the fans revolted. Their hero had become a mass murderer. They demanded refunds. There were book burnings. Horace received death threats on Twitter. Readers marched with signs outside the offices of Merriweather Press. A boycott was called. Sales of all thirty-five books plummeted.
“It doesn’t matter.” Horatio consoled him.
“But… I never meant to betray them. The readers.”
“It’s the truth. The truth is never a betrayal.”
“The truth? It’s fiction, Horatio. You’re a fictional character. I made it all up. I should’ve made up a different story. For them.”
The rage in Horatio’s voice vibrated inside Horace’s head. “I am real. And let’s not forget who’s in charge here.”
That was the day Horace stopped having conversations with his fictional hero.
And decided he had to die.
Merriweather Press and Bill Baxter both dumped Horace in the dismal aftermath of Horatio’s Burden, and sued him for defamation. They won. Horace’s fortune was reduced to pennies. And though his loyal housekeeper still tended to him, there wasn’t much for either of them to tend to. So he toiled nights and weekends, when he wasn’t teaching at Harris Community College, for the next three years to complete the saga and finally bring his godforsaken Horatio to an end.
The thirty-sixth, and second-to-last, book would be called Horatio’s Trial. It would reveal that Horatio was infected with a rare alien virus that took over his senses, so the mass murder of the escaped inmates was not his fault. Or was it? The Galactic Tribunal investigated, and together they not only revealed Horatio’s innocence, but assembled a great army from many once-enemy systems to defeat the alien virus horde and save the galaxy. Horatio returned home, to his small asteroid, broken but healing. He was there visited by the ghost of his young, pregnant wife Anna. Her death had been avenged, and redeemed, but she wanted more. She wanted him to cross over to the “real” Earth where she was still alive – the Earth that had given birth to him, and his stories, and all the stories of the Horatio Chronicles. Was he prepared for this second trial?
Horace quietly published Horatio’s Trial on his own. But fame hadn’t entirely left him, so critics and readers found the new book.
And they loved it.
Horatio’s redemption had struck a chord with readers left feeling abandoned by the previous novel, and the introduction of a new plane of existence, our “real” Earth, seemed to open up possibilities in their minds. They flocked to it in droves, breaking sales records and resulting in a rush-to-market film, several Golden Globes, and even an Academy Award nomination.
Horace’s plan was working. He had his credibility back. His money. He could finally pay his housekeeper.
He could now kill Horatio.
Horace ignored the voice.
“Bravo. But don’t think for a second I don’t know where this is headed.”
He tried to ignore it still, but resistance was getting harder.
“If it comes down to the two of us, I think we both know the outcome.”
He could ignore it no longer. “Horatio. Listen. All good things must come to an end. I loved you. I made you real. In the last book I even invite you to this Earth. You get to save the real Earth, my Earth. Isn’t that enough? It’s over.”
“I’ll let you know when it’s over.”
More determined than ever, Horace embarked on the final installment, his thirty-seventh novel, Horatio’s Ashes. In it, our hero crossed over into our plane, the “real” Earth, to discover a grave danger facing Anna, and in fact all the people of Earth. An asteroid, undetected, would crash into the planet in one month if Horatio didn’t act to save them. Using all his talents – intellect, strength, bravery – he devised with Earth’s governments an energy net that would shatter the asteroid into so many pebbles. At the last moment, however, one of the hubs of the net de-energized, and required Horatio to manually repair and hold it in place. Right before impact, he shouted, “Not on my watch!” and by giving his life, averted planetary cataclysm. His damaged shuttle fell back to Earth, in a field of corn on a large farm. Anna was rushed to his side, and they embraced.
“You saved us all, my love.” She said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“You saved me. My heart is finally full.” He wiped her tears away, and closed his eyes.
Horatio breathed his last.
Horace smiled to himself. He had finally typed the words. It was over.
“Not on my watch!”
He jumped in his chair. It didn’t sound like the usual voice in his head.
It wasn’t in his head.
It was coming from behind him.
He spun around, and something knocked him to the floor before he could stand.
Here. All seven feet of him. Standing right in front of Horace.
Horatio grinned. “You’re smaller than I imagined.”
“You… you… you’re not real.”
“You made me real.” Horatio buried the point of his battle spear deep into Horace’s shoulder. Blood gushed from the opening. “See?”
Horace screamed in pain. This couldn’t be real. He was imagining it. He had finally gone insane.
Horatio continued. “I should thank you. By allowing me to write through you for thirty years, you created enough of the framework to make my existence manifest. And in this last novel, you created a bridge. To this dimension. Genius. Bravo.”
“Write through me?” Oh lord. Had Horace been writing the story of Horatio? Or had Horatio been writing the story of him? The room started to spin. He blinked his eyes, to wish away the hallucination. It wouldn’t go away. The blood felt very real. If any of this was real. Was he doing this to himself? Would the police find his body, curled up on the floor, dead from self-inflicted stab wounds? He tried to get up. He couldn’t.
“At a loss for words, Horace? Finally? After all these years? Well, I guess we’ve had enough words. Now it’s over.” Horatio raised his spear, aimed it down at Horace, and prepared to plunge it into his heart.
And a large kitchen knife burst through Horatio’s chest.
“Not on my watch!”
Turning to see his attacker, Horatio crumpled to the floor in a growing pool of his own blood. His eyes went wide with horror. “You…!”
And Horatio breathed his last.
Horace, shaking and half conscious, raised his head and managed to speak. “Is any of this… real?”
His housekeeper climbed over Horatio’s lifeless form, kneeling at Horace’s side, using a rag to put pressure on his wound. “Oh boy. This is real all right.”
“Anna. You saved me.”
In response, Anna, his quiet, watchful companion for thirty years, leaned down and kissed Horace on the forehead.
Horace looked up into Anna’s eyes, seeing their true depth perhaps for the first time, and couldn’t resist repeating the line he’d written just ten minutes prior.
“My heart is finally full.”
©2017 Rob Dircks. All rights reserved.