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Visualized Reality

Chenoa Franz


Published by Chenoa Franz

Copyright 2018 Chenoa Franz

www.chenoafranz.net



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied, and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage others to legally purchase a copy of their own ebook or paperback. Thank you for your support.




For my daughter.

Thank you for inspiring me, serving as my sounding board,

and for giving me hope:

no matter how our society changes,

there will always be awesome children like you who

embrace reading and the imagination.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Epilogue

About the Author





PROLOGUE

The dirt from her path to freedom slipped dangerously under her running shoes, threatening to bring her to her knees at the next wrong turn. And yet, bloody knees were the least of her worries.

Even as these thoughts entered her head, Finn heard the motor of one of the dirt bikes approaching her from behind. Glancing backwards while she continued running, she noted that the headlights were not yet visible around the bend. She veered off the side of the road, sliding along the slight embankment and ducking down beneath the dirt road as the bike approached.

She gasped for breath in the darkness, grateful that her hunter would not hear her over the roar of his motor. Once he’d driven past, she waited just long enough to make sure that the sound of his engine was receding without any indication of another of his companions. Then she was again on her feet and up the embankment, racing along the dirt road.

She knew that she could avoid these hiding episodes if she left the paths. But she also knew that she wouldn’t be able to move as quickly. And if she didn’t find shelter before the sun came up, she suspected they’d have the helicopters circulating. If she waited that long, she stood no chance of escaping.

The cave entrance was three miles from the Academy. With any luck, nobody else would know where she was going and she would find the entrance without encountering any of the people who had been hunting her for the last thirty minutes. It couldn’t be far now.

She counted her strides as her feet pounded the dirt beneath her. And she cursed silently to herself when she was unable to get to twenty before the sound of another vehicle approached. Scampering for the cover of a tree on the side of the road, she lost her footing and slipped, the gravel slicing painfully into her palms as she attempted to break her fall.

If she’d had enough breath left, she would have blown on her palms. But she was panting now and only had enough energy and time to brush them off on her pants. Again, she ducked into the shadows as another dirt bike rushed past. And again, she shuffled up the embankment to the main path. Her pace had slowed considerably in her exhaustion, and she gave herself a brief pep talk before pumping her arms a bit harder in hopes of persuading her legs to cooperate.

Maybe the engine of the dirt bike echoing through the mountain had drawn her attention. Perhaps the pep talk was the reason she’d been too distracted. No matter the cause, she was oblivious to the sound of the SUV engine that approached her from behind. It was the sight of her shadow illuminated in the headlights that tipped her off. Too late.

Even as she veered off the path and dove for the shelter of the trees and shrubs, she heard a pop behind her and felt the searing pain in her right shoulder. But she didn’t dare slow down to inspect the damage.

They had turned the vehicle in the road to shine their headlights into the trees after her. While this allowed her to move more quickly without fear of slamming into a tree trunk, it also allowed them to follow her more easily. And they were following her. She could hear their footsteps racing behind her, considerably faster than hers. In spite of her exhaustion, fear and adrenaline seemed to have pushed aside any sluggishness that had plagued her only moments before.

And then she slammed into a wall.

It wasn’t brick or stone or adobe.

The wall was of a pharmaceutical variety.

Her feet refused to move at much more than a stumble. Her vision began to blur. And the sounds of their chase suddenly sounded like they were miles behind her…in an echoing chamber.

With her left hand, she reached up for her right shoulder, identifying the tranquilizer dart that had penetrated her skin and injected the drug that was robbing her of consciousness.

In no time, her knees buckled beneath her, causing her to collapse just beyond the clearing of the trees. Clutching the dart, she ripped it from her body and rolled onto her stomach with the intention of pushing herself back to her feet.

But the drugs were coursing through her veins now, and she knew she didn’t have long before she would lose her battle. Turning her face to the west, she realized that she was tragically close to her final destination. Even in the darkness, she could see the pale letters that would mark the approximate location of the entrance to the cave.

The hunters were upon her now, roughly grabbing her arms and lifting her body off of the ground. Powerless to fight them, she used her remaining strength to turn her head as they returned to the trees on their way back to their SUV. Behind them stood the letters that had stood as a beacon for months, calling to her, urging her to come and join them. Now they taunted her in her moment of defeat.

She knew what the sign was supposed to read. But time and vandals had taken a toll on the monument, leaving behind a message that Finn found inspiring.

Alone on the mountain, in the stark surroundings, the sign read HOL Y.

And it was the mark of her freedom, now only a dream.

***

The glamorous woman with silver hair stood in front of the television screen in the production room, watching Finn’s vision blacken as she lost consciousness.

From behind her, a young man whose name she couldn’t recall suddenly appeared, shuffling his feet nervously.

“The director will want to see this,” he finally sputtered.

She only held up a perfectly manicured hand. “Not yet.”

“If this girl is having dreams of leaving the Academy and sees us as a threat, the director will want to know,” he argued.

The woman only turned her cool, gray eyes on him, measuring his worth with a single glance and finding him wanting.

“Ma’am.” He spoke only the single word. It was neither a question nor a plea. It was merely an afterthought. And it was the worst thing he could have said to her.

“I will take care of the girl. The director has a tendency to react rashly on occasions such as these, usually forgetting that she’s been with us for thirteen years and has singlehandedly brought in more profit than any other student at the Academy. We can’t afford to further alienate her. I will handle the girl.”

Eager to make up for his earlier offense, he nodded obediently. “Of course, Assistant Director Jennings.”

“It is only a dream. It’s nothing to cause concern at this juncture.”

“I trust your judgment,” he groveled.

“Good.” She continued to look at him as though he were the squashed remains of an earthworm on the sole of her purple pumps. “Not a word of this to the director.”

“Of course not.”

The two stood in silence for a moment, merely staring at each other.

Finally, she interrupted the awkward moment. “Did you need something else?”

Hurriedly, he stumbled over his words. “No, ma’am. I’ll be on my way.”

She nodded in satisfaction and waited for the door to close behind him before she brought up the digital file of Finn’s dream. The icon identified the girl’s name and the date of the event. The assistant director swiftly deleted the file and then pulled it from the auto-archives.

That done, she went to wake Finn.




PART I: PIERCE ACADEMY




CHAPTER 1

Some people claimed to have crystal clear memories of a moment that was later proven to have shaped their lives. For Finn, that moment occurred when she was only four years old; and the trauma had purged most of the memories from her mind.

She was left only with snapshots of images from that moment, snapshots that seemed to essentially be black and white with bold splashes of red. There was the red traffic light. The red car. The red upholstery of the car seat.

Then there was the red hair, lipstick, fingernails, and stiletto heels of the woman who pulled her from the car. Followed by the red flames.

Finn also had snapshots of red flashing lights, a red fire truck, a policeman taking notes with a red pen, and the scattered red dots of the blood that stained her shirt.

But try as she might, she couldn’t recall a single image of the parents who had died in that red car engulfed in red flames. And she had no memories of her childhood prior to the death of her parents.

From what she’d been told, there were no living relatives. There were, instead, foster homes, three of them in six months. As it turned out, people who volunteered to foster four-year-old orphans preferred that the orphans speak on occasion and don’t wake the entire household in the middle of the night with screams of terror from haunting nightmares.

Only six months after her parents had died, Finn was an official student of Pierce Academy. Students were rarely admitted into the program earlier than five or six, but Finn was an exception. Nearly thirteen years later, she continued to be an exception as the oldest student ever to study at Pierce Academy.

At age fifteen, Pierce Academy students graduated and left the boarding school for the real world. Finn longed for the day when she, too, would be released. But her instructors said that she was too valuable to the Academy. They intended to keep her as long as they could, which meant that until Finn turned eighteen—in eleven months—she wouldn’t be going anywhere.

***

Finn entered the VR room and noted that eight of the chairs were already occupied. Professor Hartford stood nearest the entrance, standing over three young children, all probably between the ages of six and nine. Each of them sat in a black leather chair with a complex headrest that supported the back of the neck and then curved up behind the base of the skull and back of the head. Two of the children wore black-out goggles over their eyes to keep them free from visual distractions. Behind each child stood a large monitor with a film running steadily. Immediately to the left of the monitor was a screen that tracked the child’s vitals, just in case.

Professor Elizabeth Hartford watched these screens and periodically took notes on the clipboard in front of her. She was responsible for the Department of Children’s Films and Animation and had been the most recent addition to the Pierce Academy staff. She was young, probably no more than thirty-five, and extremely beautiful. Her appearance was clearly important to her, with her flawless make-up and hair. Shortly after she had joined the staff, students began gossiping about her having been Miss California in her younger years and a school teacher, to boot. But then she’d married a senator with connections to Director Keating, and her joining the Academy staff was inevitable. There had been rumors that prior to marrying the senator, she had many failed attempts at a singing career, but nobody could be certain if that were true.

A short alarm drew the attention of both Professor Hartford and Finn to the middle child of the group. On the screen behind him, a terrifying beast suddenly appeared, roaring and spraying spit and blood still fresh on his jowls from a recent kill. Finn resisted the urge to pull the child out of the chair while the professor took a moment to jot down some notes, including the time on the monitor display. She then reached out and gently took the child’s hand, leaning close to speak in his ear. The screen went green for a moment and then began again without the beast, the child having been calmed and re-directed by Professor Hartford.

“But only after she made note for future reference,” Finn muttered in disgust.

She barely acknowledged Professors Rochester and Morell with their five students in chairs. She was certain that within a few minutes of observation, she’d be equally disgusted with their methods.

It was Professor Herbert Baxter that she was scheduled to see. Unfortunately, the chairs in his section of the VR room were vacant. He had recently told her that he needed to be free to monitor her productions more closely with her growing independence and aggression. He was responsible for the Department of Horror and War films, so Finn failed to understand why her aggression needed to be monitored in her works.

Of the four instructors in the school, Herbert Baxter was the most terrifying. He was a short man who carried quite a few extra pounds around his middle. He had thinning white-blond hair that lay in wisps over his scalp and contrasted with his ruddy complexion. He spoke softly and had a bright smile that accompanied clear blue eyes that seemed to perpetually sparkle in excitement. When she’d first met him, when she was four, she’d thought that he was Santa Claus, with considerably less hair. But shortly after she began working with him, she learned that behind his jolly exterior, he had a thirst for blood and violence. Given that she was only five when she began creating films for him, his passion was particularly traumatizing for her.

He was also responsible for creating and conducting sleep studies for those students who were foolish enough to get out of line.

Professor Baxter did not greet her or ask how her day had been going. Instead, he smiled brightly—a smile that had come to haunt her—and said, “Have a seat.”

Finn sat in the seat, leaning forward slightly so that the professor could adjust the neck support, bringing the sensor to the base of her skull so that it would cradle the back of her head. The sensor was a highly sensitive device that used wireless technology to read signals from the visual cortex in the back of the brain. Finn couldn’t pretend to understand the technology behind the device; and to be fair, very few people in the world could understand. But as children visualized a scene or character, that image came to life on the monitor behind their chairs. Sometimes, children were told a story to visualize; other times they were encouraged to bring a particular novel and read silently while in the visualized reality—or VR—chairs. There were other times, especially for the older and more experienced students, where they would discuss a story line and the general plot and character development. They would then be free to visualize and create the film from those plans.

In spite of the fact that Finn was the oldest student at Pierce Academy, she had never been given the freedom or opportunity to create off of a general plan. Instead, she was closely regulated and was constantly critiqued, a fact that suggested the people in charge at Pierce Academy did not trust her, no matter how valuable they claimed she was.

Once her seat was adjusted, Professor Baxter used the heel of his hand to press her head back against the headrest, a gesture that Finn considered unnecessary and rude. Nevertheless, he did it every time she had to work with him, an effort to remind her of his control over her, she suspected. He then handed her a small device with a screen on it. “Here you go. It’s already prepped and ready to go.”

She was doing a re-creation of a classic horror film. She pressed Play on the device and watched the screen for a moment, cringing at the gory sounds and the piercing screams. “I’ve already done this scene,” she reminded the professor.

He beamed at her. “Yes. We are making some adjustments. When this film was first created, there were some limitations with special effects that made some aspects of the film tricky and less believable. We don’t have those limitations. So during this scene, I’d like to actually see the insides ripped out of these two people. There should be more sound and more blood. Don’t hold back on this one.”

“Don’t hold back on this one,” she muttered to herself. It wasn’t just “this one.” Professor Baxter had been using this same line since their first film together thirteen years ago.

After the death of her parents, Finn’s emotions had taken over her body, keeping her from being able to sleep or eat. For months after arriving at Pierce Academy, she spent the majority of her time in therapy sessions. The on-call psychiatrist was asked to come on staff full-time to work with her. She hardly spoke and typically moved through her day as mechanically as the VR machines that were so deliciously profitable to those in charge at Pierce Academy. So they hired a second psychiatrist to work with her. They wrote reports about the impact of the trauma of the death of her parents, and Director Keating and Professor Baxter agreed that her trauma would make for some truly terrifying horror films. So instead of nurturing her young mind in an effort to heal her, they nurtured the trauma in an effort to create terror in the minds of their intended audiences.

And if it made her feel like she was living in her own world of never-ending Hell at age five, so be it.

The professor would accept no excuses and no delays. Over the years, she had tried everything to postpone the horror that she lived through every time she created a film for Herbert Baxter. There were days when she would leave a session with him and become sick to her stomach. And every time, she had to relive that horror in her own nightmares, as well. Many of these nightmares, in fact, were recorded remotely through the VR systems installed in their beds and used to later torment her or punish her in sleep studies.

This project would be the one-hundred and eightieth film she’d created with Professor Baxter. She alone was responsible for bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for the Academy.

So she’d learned to cope. She learned to disconnect emotionally as she created his little world of horror, blood, and violence. She studied the movements and characterizations as mechanically as possible. During fight scenes, she choreographed creative strategies and movements. And she lately found herself longing to go through those movements and actions herself. She could clearly visualize the characters’ arms and legs and hands; but how hard would it be to do that herself?

In her darker moments, she was afraid that the director wouldn’t ever release her from Pierce. She wondered if they would kill her or lock her away. Then she would push the thoughts away, scolding herself for her overactive and overly negative imagination. Nonetheless, if the worst came true, would she be able to defend herself?

She would see the spark in the professor’s eyes and fear that he knew of some horrible fate that would befall her before her next birthday. Her heart would race in anxiety, her breath trapped in her throat. So she would try to visualize herself doing the choreographed routines from the fight scenes she’d created. In those imaginings, she fought back.

But she could never visualize that while hooked up to the VR chairs or when lying in bed at night. She didn’t dare let them know that these things occupied her thoughts when she was alone, whether awake or asleep.

So even as Professor Baxter was reaching for the power button on the monitor, Finn was clearing her mind, visualizing a countryside of gently rolling hills of hay, with horse and cattle meandering about lazily in the summer sun. She felt an electric tug on the back of her scalp, similar to someone pulling lightly on the back of her hair. And she knew without looking that this image was now on the screen in front of the professor.

He suddenly looked bored.



CHAPTER 2

In spite of her own feelings of confinement, Finn had been afforded some freedoms and luxuries because of her age and independence. This was why, just before midnight on a Thursday night, she found herself alone in the theater room watching the end of an old, classic movie. It was a romance between an unlikely match. But it was neither the romance nor the characters that captured her attention through the conclusion. It was the setting.

She shut off the film and let herself out of the auditorium space, taking care to turn out the lights behind her. The doors swung closed silently after allowing her to pass. Even as she relived the scene of the woman shopping on Rodeo Drive in the bright California sun, she made her way upstairs to Wilder Hall, the girls’ dormitory.

The sleeping bodies were softly lit by the illuminated cobalt blue ceiling, a throwback to the days when Pierce Academy had been an observatory dedicated to space education. She walked to the opposite end of the room, just before the elevated sitting room surrounded by elaborate columns, and then opened the door to escape to the rooftop terrace.

They had played polo at an extravagant country club in the movie. And an anonymous voice had warned them against stomping on “steaming divots.” She was able to recognize that this was supposed to be amusing, but she’d never played polo or set foot in a country club. And she could only infer that divots were the mounds of dirt and grass that had been kicked up by the hooves of the running horses. She couldn’t imagine why they’d be steaming.

The lead in the film had enjoyed the luxuries of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. As Finn crossed the terrace, she looked out over the city below and wondered where that hotel was located. And what about the dingy apartment that would probably be considered a luxury to most residents of that same city today?

The Los Angeles she gazed at tonight was very different from the city that served as the setting for the movie. Below her, some city lights remained, but certainly not enough to brighten the sky and blot out the stars. And although she’d never walked a single street in L.A., she was certain that there were no longer any polo matches or country clubs or shopping excursions on the palm-lined Rodeo Drive. Instead, the city was rumored to be filled with arsonists, addicts, thieves, and squatters taking advantage of those who were unfortunate enough to cross paths with them. Together, they were destroying the once-glamorous city.

Behind her, Finn heard the soft footfalls of someone’s approach.

“You should be inside,” a masculine voice interrupted her thoughts. The statement wasn’t quite an order but was definitely more than a mere suggestion.

She heard him shuffle his weight, the rifle he carried making a distinctly recognizable noise that revealed his identity without her needing to glance over her shoulder. She didn’t know his name or the color of his eyes or hair. But he was Security. They were a nameless and faceless bunch responsible for protecting the children at Pierce Academy. But on nights like tonight, when she longed to be alone with her imagined version of Los Angeles, he seemed more a threat than a comfort. It wasn’t the first time Finn wondered if his job was actually to keep people out of the Academy or to keep her and the others in.

“I’m fine,” she answered coolly, hoping he would get the hint and leave her in peace.

When he didn’t leave, she briefly wondered if he was too dense to understand her unspoken dismissal or too smart to ignore her restlessness. In the past two years, she’d lost count of the number of times she’d stood on this very terrace weighing the possible consequences of bolting to the ramp that would eventually dump her onto the green, perfectly tended lawns in front of the building.

Beyond those lawns lay the hills of freedom.

The sounds of his footsteps indicated his retreat, though she knew from experience—and without looking—that he had only gone as far as the top of the staircase at the edge of East Terrace.

She pretended she was alone and enjoyed the silence, tilting her head all the way back to lose herself in the darkened night sky above. She knew that if she gazed long enough, she would begin to feel like she was floating among those balls of fire and light. No longer alone. Finally a part of something beautiful.

But before she could enjoy the floating and the belonging, the echo of approaching footfalls disturbed her once again.

“Mind if I join you?”

It wasn’t Security this time.

Finn pushed her hair over her shoulder and glanced at him, more to acknowledge him as social etiquette required than to confirm his identity. The timber of his voice would have tipped her off. He was the second oldest student at Pierce Academy, Joshua. She didn’t know his last name.

When Joshua had first come to the Academy, Finn had been fourteen. She had been relieved and mildly curious to have someone closer to her age. But she had been a shy girl in the middle of her teen years. And at the time, there had been two other girls her age who had captured Joshua’s attention. Once again, Finn had been alone. And by the time she actually had a conversation with Joshua, she realized that he—like every other student in their approximate age group—accepted his circumstances and felt filled with self-importance because of his role in the film industry. She didn’t trust anyone enough to express her own opinions and feelings of imprisonment and oppression. She had felt trapped, but worse yet, she felt trapped with a bunch of people who didn’t share the desperation and hopelessness that suffocated her every day.

As time wore on and the other girls her age graduated, Joshua was the student closest to her in age, and he turned to her for companionship. But by this time, Finn had given up on any hope of any sort of understanding or friendship between them. And besides, he seemed less interested in friendship and more interested in hitting on her every time he opened his mouth.

Like now, for instance. Why had he bothered to track her down on the terrace in the middle of the night?

He would have had to walk along the promenade that circled the enormous dome in the center of the building to get from the West Terrace outside of the boys’ dormitory to the East Terrace. He had walked right past the guard without eliciting a single word from the man who had, only moments before, tried to tell Finn to go inside. So why didn’t Security feel compelled to almost-order around Joshua? Was it because he was a boy? Finn didn’t think so. For the past couple of months, she had sensed a shift in the treatment she received from Security. They seemed suspicious of her. On guard. And it didn’t seem to have anything to do with her gender.

“What are you doing out here this late?”

She glanced up at the stars again. “Probably the same thing as you.”

“Considering the likelihood of a relationship between a millionaire and a common streetwalker in a very sunny Los Angeles?”

Startled, she immediately caught his reference to the movie she’d just been watching in the theater room. “Were you spying on me?”

“What?”

“Were you in the theater with me while I was watching that movie?”

He shrugged and grinned in an attempt to appear disarming. Instead, she became more flustered and defensive.

“I thought I was alone.” She was always alone. Even in the cafeteria, surrounded by a hundred other children, she was alone. And as much as she wanted to belong, sitting across the table from them or in the classroom with them, listening to their conversations and playful laughter made her feel even more isolated. Sometimes, it was easier to simply be alone.

“I would have offered to bring popcorn, but I thought you’d turn me down.”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“You never knew I was there. I was sitting a good 50 feet behind you and slipped out before you even knew I was there.”

She wanted to argue with him, to make him understand how knowing that he was there was an invasion for her. But she only repeated, “I wanted to be alone.”

“What woman wants to be alone when she is watching a very romantic film in a room with enough seating for nearly two hundred people?”

“Romantic?”

His large, dark eyes widened in surprise. “You missed the romance?”

“I wasn’t paying attention to that part,” she lied uncomfortably.

“That part? It was the central story of the entire movie!”

“I think you’re exaggerating,” she answered self-consciously, even as she warmly remembered the shared kisses and embraces of the main characters.

“He bought her fancy clothes and jewels! He took her on a private jet to see an opera performance! He played the piano!” He hesitated and lowered his voice before adding, “Remember the piano?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“And it wasn’t romantic to you?”

“I guess that I was pre-occupied,” she mumbled, suddenly studying her cuticles and bare nails.

“With what?”

She glanced out over the dull haze of diminishing lights of the once-great city of Los Angeles. She imagined the people now huddled in ditches for safety, living on the street while desperately staying awake through the night. She imagined the gang wars and thieves and criminals continuing their rampage through a city out of control. They’d all been taught from a very young age that the city was a place of terror; only their hillside remained safe with their walls and armed security.

He interrupted her thoughts and repeated his question. “What were you pre-occupied with?”

They both stood in silence, he waiting for her to answer and she waiting for him to leave. She gave in first.

She gestured at the dim lights of the city below them. “The palm trees and the sunshine. The bright windows and pristine buildings. The lush green lawns and the swimming pools. It was very different in the film.”

“It was romantic,” he insisted.

“Do you think it was really like that down there?” she asked quietly.

“Romantic?”

She grunted in frustration. Every time she weakened and tried to have a conversation with Joshua, it turned out like this one. They would talk in circles around each other, neither having much interest in the direction of the other. As much as she occasionally wanted to befriend him, he was different and difficult for her. “It’s late,” she announced softly and a bit awkwardly. She turned and moved toward the entrance to her dormitory.

“Why does romance frighten you?”

She halted but refused to face him. “It doesn’t frighten me.”

“I think it terrifies you. I think that all emotions terrify you. You are always so buttoned up and emotionless.”

She spun around on him. “I am not emotionless.”

He provoked her by grinning charmingly. “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you express any kind of emotion. Certainly not romantic emotions.”

The most infuriating part was that he wasn’t wrong. She had been at the Academy for thirteen years and had made no close attachments to any other person. “Just because I don’t have romantic feelings toward anyone here doesn’t mean that I am emotionless.” Her voice cracked and the knot in her throat thickened.

He lifted his palm to his chest. “Ouch.”

“It’s nothing personal,” she quietly assured him, starting to turn back to the dormitory.

“Of course it’s personal. Rejection is always personal.”

She hesitated but said nothing.

“So what kind of guy might you have romantic feelings for?”

She sighed in exasperation and walked swiftly back to Joshua’s side, now embarrassed at the idea of the guard overhearing their conversation. “Listen, romance is not a high priority for me, Joshua. And your constant need to try to embarrass me with these discussions is really aggravating.”

He raised his eyebrows and nodded in approval. “Embarrassment and aggravation are definitely emotions.”

“Please stop.”

He laughed teasingly. “I’m just trying to get you to relax.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Did Jennings tell you to talk to me?”

Now it was his turn to look suspicious. “About what?”

Relaxing was not her strong suit. For the past year, Assistant Director Jennings had been having Finn work with a therapist in an effort to work through something they called anxiety repression and depression. Jennings had begun to identify a problem with her films, noticing a latent tendency toward anger and aggression in her protagonists. Professor Baxter, of course, found that when properly monitored, the anger and aggression could be refreshing and desirable in their films. But with Finn’s past history and the traumatically violent deaths of her parents, the assistant director was concerned.

The therapist had been trying yoga and meditation lately, focusing on inner peace and acceptance. He had her studying art and music to appreciate beauty in life. More than anything, these sessions had proven invigorating for Finn. She felt refreshed and hopeful every time she left the session.

But as soon as she closed the door behind her, the reality of her isolated and restrictive world came crashing down upon her again. She immediately felt the tension return to her neck and shoulders and the weight of her circumstances causing her to move slowly and mechanically through life.

But even though the sessions were not providing long-term relief, Finn relished those hours of serenity and was not willing to give them up. And Assistant Director Jennings continued to encourage her, clearly also not willing to give up on Finn.

So it only made sense that she would encourage Joshua to try to approach Finn to get her to relax or lighten up. Instead, the realization of this possibility only made her more uncomfortable and uptight.

Looking at Josh standing there after he had invaded her physical and emotional space more than once tonight, the stars and moon illuminating his handsome grin and mussed blond hair, she was able to recognize the feeling of building impotence and sadness. She should be able to depend on him as a confidant and friend. He was the closest thing she had to a peer. It would be natural for them to be close, maybe even attracted to each other. But they had nothing in common. And his indifference to their situation made her feel powerless and even a bit angry. So she followed her initial instinct and turned away from him.

“Good night,” she called softly as she walked away.

He called out to her again, but she pretended not to hear.

“What would Jennings want me to talk to you about?” he tried again.

Inside the girls’ dormitory of Wilder Hall, Finn glanced at the sleeping forms of sixty girls in bunked cots, ranging in age from 6 to 13. With the exception of one of the older girls who sat up in bed reading a book with a flashlight, they all were tucked under their covers and sleeping. A couple of them whimpered or mumbled in their sleep, but most of them seemed to be sleeping soundly. The thoughts that every single one of them had a VR system monitoring their current thoughts—their most private, unguarded subconscious thoughts—was the most invasive violation of Pierce Academy.

Finn walked immediately to her own bunk in the furthest corner from the main entrance of the room, not far from the door leading out to the terrace, and dropped down onto her mattress, her head on the molded pillow with the embedded VR sensor. She didn’t bother to change into pajamas or brush her teeth. Instead, she lay staring at the illuminated cobalt ceiling and practiced clearing her mind through the deep breathing exercises that her doctor had taught her months before.



CHAPTER 3

Glancing around to ensure that she was alone, Finn dropped into an oversized chair and held the old novel before her. She opened it to her bookmark, pausing to hold the yellowed papers up to her nose and breathe in the scent of age and wisdom. Part of her joy of reading stemmed from the pleasure she experienced from the smell of books.

Sighing in near-contentment, she curled her feet up beneath her and began reading. The book was called Fahrenheit 451, written by a man named Ray Bradbury in the 1950s. She was nearly half way through the book, but she’d read it already…twenty-two times.

At the Academy, all of the children were encouraged to read. They were in the business of creating films; and since books were often brought to life on the big screen, the vast majority of focus on education was spent on reading and comprehension. Finn had been introduced to this novel for the first time when she was fourteen. And she had been reading and re-reading the book non-stop for roughly three years. She read other books as they were required by her tutor, but she read this one for pleasure.

And as she grew up and began to truly understand the world in which she lived, she felt a stronger and deeper connection to the main character, Montag. He was one of few in his society with his eyes open enough to see what was wrong with the world around him. That made him lonely and frustrated, and eventually drove him to attempt to create change. While Finn certainly hadn’t rebelled against the Academy, she had grown increasingly unhappy with the institution, and she seemed to be alone in her criticisms of them. And of late, she had certainly considered how she might escape this world and find freedom on her own. But the professors and director had warned her of what awaited her outside of Pierce Academy, a city of destruction and devastation. It was an intimidating and effective threat, to say the least.

She pushed these comparisons out of her mind to lose herself more completely in the book. It was a form of escapism, she knew, one where she could be the hero who rebelled. The hero who had the strength to rebel.

“You still haven’t finished that book?”

She sighed in exasperation as Joshua entered the room. “I’m reading it again.”

“Why would you do that?”

Instead of answering him, she asked, “Did you come in here for a reason?”

He grinned and dropped onto the sofa across from her chair. “You don’t really like me at all, do you?”

“I don’t dislike you, but I find you annoying at times.”

He laughed loudly at her honesty. “Do you also find me charming at times? Or attractive at times?”

She turned her attention back to her book, hoping he would get the hint and leave. “Mostly just annoying,” she responded simply.

“You are annoyed by me because I don’t leave you alone to wallow in your misery like everyone else at this place does. Nobody tries to talk to you in the cafeteria. Nobody sits near you in class. You watch movies in the theater room by yourself after everyone else has gone to bed.”

“Not everyone, apparently,” she muttered to herself.

“You push everyone away. But I push back. That’s why you find me annoying.”

“I like being alone, Joshua.”

“Josh,” he corrected. “And nobody likes being alone.”

“Nobody likes being told what she likes.”

“I’m only two years younger than you.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” And then before he could respond, she realized that he was at the age of completion at the Academy. “You’re fifteen. You’re graduating.”

He waved his hand to dismiss her. “Any day now.”

“Have they told you when you leave?” she asked, curious about the procedure. She’d known that students left at age fifteen, but she’d never been close to any of them.

“Not so far.” The corners of his mouth turned down and he bit his lower lip, a sign of his nervousness. He changed the subject. “As I was saying, you’re only two years older than me. We live in the same place and work for the same people.” His mouth twisted into a dry smile before he reached up flirtatiously and tugged a lock of her hair. “It would be natural for us to be friends, or whatever,” he added.

“There’s nothing natural about any of that,” she countered without emotion. “You and I are cut from a different cloth. We have nothing in common and nothing to gain by forcing a…whatever.”

“What are you so afraid of?”

“A zombie apocalypse has always frightened me a bit. And nuclear fall-out never sounded particularly appealing.”

He narrowed his eyes at her and stared for a moment before sighing in defeat. “Rochester wants to see you. She sent me to fetch you.”

Finn sat up a bit straighter and closed her book in her lap. “Did she say what she wanted?”

“You. Right away.”

And just like that, before she could celebrate her victory over her emotional control to Josh’s needling, she was on her feet and moving swiftly through the glass doors of the reading room to the production room. It wasn’t that she was particularly eager to meet with Annabel Rochester, the head of the Action/Adventure/Dystopian Department. But making her wait was never a good idea.

Nevertheless, Finn hesitated in the doorway of the production room, clutching the well-read copy of Bradbury’s novel and silently observing the woman who had summoned her. She was working alone in production, reaching to turn off the computer when she sensed that she was no longer alone. She was dressed in a scarlet pantsuit with her white hair worn short and tightly curled. The suit and hair worked together to highlight her smooth, cocoa complexion. Despite her bright and composed appearance, she was responsible for the production of a number of excessively violent and dark films.

She turned to acknowledge Finn in the doorway, then gestured for her to come in. Finn glanced for a moment at her face, hoping to be able to anticipate why the woman wanted to speak with her. But reading the woman was nearly impossible because her face wore no expression and her eyes were perpetually hidden behind transitional glasses that seemed permanently tinted.

“You wanted to see me?” Finn finally prodded.

“Yes. I’ve run your current project past Director Keating, and he wants us to make some changes. He thinks that it’s got potential to be particularly popular among young adult and adult audiences.”

This was a relief. The project had been an idea that Finn had requested herself. Typically, the instructors developed the stories used in movie production, either re-making films that had been successful in the past or using once-popular literature. And this pet project of Finn’s involved a novel that had previously been made into a movie, more than once. She had spent hours working up a proposal for Instructor Rochester and the director, and they had approved her re-make of her favorite novel.

“This is good news.”

“It is, yes. He’s so confident in the success of the project that he’s insisting that we wrap the project before the end of the week. So you can see that making these changes has become an urgent matter.”

“What kind of changes?”

“I’ve already notified your tutor and Instructor Baxter that you’ll be needed elsewhere today. Did I mention that the director is insisting?”

“What kind of changes?” Finn repeated.

“Follow me. I have a list.”

“A list?” Sensing that she wasn’t going to like the changes that the director had in mind, Finn was prepared to do battle with Instructor Rochester. She was also prepared to be defeated. In the past year, she had argued against the director’s changes for two other projects she’d done. She’d lost both battles.

Looking back, she could remember changing a number of her stories for the director. But it wasn’t until the last year that she was old enough to recognize the reason for these changes.

In stories where children stood up for themselves in a world of corruption, the director had tamed down their rebellion. His solutions and re-writes were often a bit too tidy and too simplistic. During one particular project, the ending hadn’t even made logical sense given details that had been revealed earlier in the story. Nevertheless, the film had made millions of dollars and been a huge hit in the box office. But this new project was different and more important to her. Finn had taken the main character’s calling and rebellion as a sign of hope and inspiration for her own trials and tribulations.

She followed Rochester in silence, preparing arguments for the changes that she expected her instructor and the director to demand. They followed a curved hallway, still referred to as the Cosmic Connection, to the administrative offices in the rear of the lower level. But instead of taking Finn to her office, she stopped outside of a door with Director Keating’s name on the outside.

“We’re meeting with him directly?”

Rochester’s look might have been one of disapproval or one of irritation. Finn wasn’t quite sure.

“Why are we meeting with him directly?” she prodded further.

“You haven’t been especially cooperative in recent months when Professor Baxter and I have brought you changes for your projects.” Even her tap on the closed door was no-nonsense.

“I’ve made every change you’ve demanded. Even the ones that I’ve completely disagreed with. I think I’ve been very cooperative.”

“Arguing for days before making those changes and pouting and dragging your feet is hardly cooperative.”

The door was flung open to reveal Director Marcus Keating, an attractive aging man who stood just shy of six feet tall with average build. His blond hair was thinning a bit on top, but his piercing blue eyes were both his most compelling and fearsome feature. At the moment, he was visibly irritated with Finn for taking up his time and for being unnecessarily difficult. He was by no means a large man, but he stood with his back straight and his chest pushed forward, a clear force of nature intending to intimidate the petite teenager into submission. More than anything, the sight of Marcus Keating projected the same image no matter the situation; he was a man of power.

“Professor Rochester,” he greeted shortly. He held the door open, a non-verbal indication that he intended for them to enter his office. It wasn’t until the two women were seated in the uncomfortable seats behind the desk that he bothered to acknowledge Finn. “I was reviewing your most recent project with Professor Rochester, and there need to be a few changes made before we can wrap production.”

“What kind of changes?”

His eyes met hers coldly as he lowered himself into the large executive chair behind the desk. “At this point, Finlay, we don’t need you to ask questions or comment. You need only make note of the changes and then make the changes. That is your role.”

“With all due respect, Director, I’m no longer a child. I’m also the closest we’ve got to an expert on the original novel.”

He waved his hand in dismissal. “The book is only a starting point. And you are still a child, a fact of which you clearly need to be reminded.”

His tone didn’t make it sound like a fact. His tone made it sound like a threat.

She sat mute, unsure of how to respond.

He accepted her silence as obedience and continued. “Times have changed since the 1950s, and audiences don’t have the same values. So to ensure a successful re-boot, we need to make modifications that will appeal to our current audiences.”

This wasn’t an unusual speech. This was Keating’s go-to justification for modifying a perfectly good—and often great—story line.

“So your main character has to go.”

This got her attention. “Go?”

“He must die.”

“Die?” She felt a burning in the pit of her stomach. As a student of dystopian, adventure, action, war, and horror films, Finn was no stranger to violence and death. But he wanted her to kill off Montag, her own personal fictional hero.

“He rebelled and attempted to destroy their society. That might have been acceptable back then, but today, society rewards obedience. Your audience will not be cheering for him. His death will reinforce the message of the importance of unity in this nation.”

“Unity?”

He assumed she didn’t know the definition of the word. “Sameness.”

“Sameness,” she repeated, careful to keep the emotion from the word.

He stood up and turned to face the window. “And the girl who disappeared should come back to speak at his funeral. She should give a eulogy about how he was misguided and turned her words around. She should explain that after the move, she learned how to fit in and feel accepted by her peers and society.”

“She was his catalyst,” Finn argued, unable to help herself. “She was the one who encouraged him to think for himself and ask questions.”

Keating turned from the window to narrow his eyes at her. “That’s what he thought. He misunderstood. He used this perfect, angelic girl to justify his own malicious rebellion. He caused pain to those around him for no reason other than to satisfy his own thirst for power.”

“That’s not how Bradbury wrote it.”

“And our audience isn’t full of Bradbury readers. Millions will watch this film. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful who read the book. The book is a non-issue. It’s irrelevant.”

“Irrelevant?” She was back to parroting his words now. But how was she supposed to respond? Books were her life and existence at Pierce. Books inspired her and drove her. Books were her escape and safe haven. Books allowed her to become someone new and live in a new world. How could they possibly be irrelevant?

“Plus we need to work on the setting. The book takes place in an urban area. That doesn’t work today. Our cities are areas of destruction, war-torn and on the brink of complete extinction. We’re going to put this in a safe little suburb. More rural than urban.”

“Safe? As in no threat of nuclear war?” Finn guessed.

“Of course not. That kind of message puts people in a panic.”

“And his wife?” she prompted, anticipating his direction.

“Happy. Good wife. And a mother. They should have a kid or two. She was a victim of her husband’s insanity.”

“He’s insane now?” the bitterness in her voice was easily detectable, and he put his large hands on his desktop, leaning menacingly toward Finn.

“He can be. I will leave that part up to you.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Is there a problem, Finlay?”

“Sir, you aren’t just re-writing a story. You are re-writing history. The book is a comment on Bradbury’s history, and you are changing everything.”

“History is insignificant.”

“Understanding history helps us to understand patterns of human behavior and politics. It helps us learn from our successes and mistakes.”

His lip curled in amused disdain. “Where did you learn that?”

She hesitated before admitting, “I’ve seen it in our movies. Students study history in school for this very reason.”

“Not any more they don’t.”

“What do you mean?”

He had turned toward the window again and now snapped his attention back to Finn. “What?”

“Why don’t they study history anymore?”

“I suppose the few students who still attend schools might study history. And the few parents who have the time and inclination to educate their children might teach them history. But most kids today don’t go to school.”

Finn was flabbergasted. She had been at Pierce Academy since she was four. She had no memory of life before attending the Academy. But she had studied the movies of the outside world, movies that spanned nearly the past 100 years. A good number of those movies had included scenes of teens in schools.

He grinned dryly. “I imagine Professor Rochester was equally surprised when public schools began shutting down. She was working for the Department of Education for the State of California at the time.”

She turned to the older woman, surprised by this bit of information as well.

“What do they do if they aren’t going to school?”

She shrugged in response, then decided to elaborate. “Most of them get jobs to help support their families, I suppose.”

Finn waved the novel in her hand. “In the 1950s, Bradbury wrote about schools that only taught sports and physical accomplishments. People didn’t want to read and think for themselves. He knew back then what would happen.”

The director shook his head in disagreement. “It’s a work of fiction, Finlay. His characters are not real people; their conflicts are not ours. It doesn’t pay to stir people up over a piece of fiction. In fact, make sure there are no schools in the movie.”

She widened her eyes in disbelief and then asked sarcastically, “Are you okay with leaving the book burning business in, sir?”

He waved his hand again. “I don’t care about that. Just so we have our copies in our little citadel here.” He studied Finn for a moment and then wrinkled up his nose in displeasure. “Did you get all of that written down?”

She tapped her head. “Got it.”

“Good. That will be all.”

She shot to her feet and moved swiftly to the door. She started as she pulled it open and halted in her indignant exit. In front of the doorway stood a tall, muscular young man with black hair and even blacker eyes. His mouth was full and might have been attractive had it not been for the chill in the eyes that bore down on her as he held his head high, looking down his nose at her.

“Wrap it by the end of the week, Finlay,” Keating ordered. “Your tutors have been notified that you will be otherwise engaged and unavailable for lessons. I’ve also informed Professor Baxter that your current project with him is on the back burner.”

She stood silent, unwilling to respond and unable to leave the room with the doorway blocked.

“Welcome to Pierce, Reiner,” Keating greeted with no unusual warmth or sense of authentic welcome. “This is Finlay, our oldest and most lucrative student.”

She met his eyes again, waiting for a response to the introduction. Was she expected to say something or shake his hand? She’d never been introduced to any other members of Security; and this man was definitely hired on for security, even if he wasn’t carrying the standard rifle and the tattoos on his neck were not typical of the rest of the Security team at Pierce.

He continued to stare at her, the corner of his upper lip twisting slightly in a look that she couldn’t quite interpret. Disgust? Amusement? Attraction? He couldn’t be more than two years older than she was. His nostrils flared in a way that might have looked humorous on anyone less terrifying.

Keating finally put an end to the awkward stalemate in the doorway. “Come in, Reiner. Finlay, please excuse us. We have important business to discuss.”

Without responding, she moved past the security guard and charged back to the reading room, where she slammed the door and looked at the novel in her hands. She flipped it open to her bookmark and took a cover in each hand, intending to tear it into two.

“Please don’t.”

Stunned to realize she wasn’t alone, Finn whirled around and found the assistant director standing beside a bookshelf in the back corner of the room. “I thought I was alone.”

She smiled sadly. “I suspect it feels that way.” She studied Finn for a moment before asking, “You met with the director today?”

“How did you know?”

“I heard about his plans for your Fahrenheit 451 project.”

She groaned in frustration and held the book up to her. “Have your read this?”

Assistant Director Jennings smiled broadly. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“Mine, too. But the director has other ideas for the re-boot.”

“That’s the key, Finn. It’s a re-boot. Occasionally, we will re-create an old film, which means that we will leave the story line and characters in tact. A ‘re-boot’ means that we will modify the story line or characters to appeal to modern audiences.”

“But the changes he is suggesting are going to destroy the entire thing.”

“Is he suggesting?”

Finn caught the gentle correction in the question. “No. They are demands. There’s honestly no point in creating the film if it means doing it his way.”

“You have no other choice.”

“I have other choices,” she insisted. “I can destroy the entire project.”

“He’ll reprimand you and put someone else on the project.”

“I don’t care. At least I wouldn’t be responsible for destroying Bradbury’s work.”

Her laughter was oddly lacking the condescension Finn expected. “You sounded a bit petulant just then.” She shelved the book she’d been studying and moved to seat herself gracefully on the edge of one of the cushions of the oversized chairs. She gestured for Finn to take a seat opposite her. “Just do the project the way he wants it done. At this point, you can’t afford to upset him. He can be a cruel man when he wants to be, you know.”


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