Free Reads!

X5 by Diana Stager

Chapter One

Cam was normally a laid-back guy who always had a smile on
his face, but that morning he was pale and sweaty. When I sat next to
him in the polygraph waiting room, I could practically feel the tension
rolling off him.

"Cam?" I said. "You don't look so great. Are you sick?"

He turned towards me, but his eyes were darting all around
and I saw his hands shaking. "Hi, Tara. I‒I‒had a‒really bad vision."

Yes, he said vision. Like me, and all the other kids at The
Bunker, Cam had visions of the future. I knew sometimes the other
kids saw horrific things in their visions, plane crashes, explosions,
murders and the like. It had never happened to me, but I could
imagine it would be really upsetting.

"What was it?" I asked. They discouraged us from talking
about our visions with anyone before we reported them because that
could influence what we remembered about them, but I thought
maybe Cam needed to get it off his chest.

"I can't tell you," he said. "I can't tell anyone."

"Oh. Okay, sure."

We sat in silence, though he fidgeted constantly, and took a lot
of really deep breaths. When it was his turn to go in, he turned to me.

"Bye, Tara."

"Bye," I said with a frown. He made it sound awfully final.

Not long after he disappeared into the room, a pair of guards
came out of the employee entrance to the residence. A knot formed in
my stomach at the sight of them. We hardly ever saw the guards down
here. When they opened the door to the polygraph suite, I could hear
Cam yelling, but couldn't make out what he said. The sound cut off
when the second guard slammed the door behind him. Next thing I
knew, the guards were dragging Cam, unconscious, out of the room
and through the employee entrance. My heart thumped in my chest
and I swear I could feel it pushing against my ribs. My best friend,
Mike, who was waiting on the other side of the room, shot me a
questioning glance, but before we could say anything to each other,
some old guy came out of the employee door. Well, not grandparent
old, but at least forty.

"Good morning, boys and girls," he said. The tone he used
was one usually used by pre-school teachers with their stupidest
students. I rolled my eyes. "Some of you may not know me, but my
name is Mr. Slater and I'm the head of Operations here at the X5
Project Habitat."

I straightened up a bit. I had been trying to find out more
about The Bunker and the X5 project, and this was someone who
could probably give me answers. "Excuse me, sir. Can I ask—"

"Just stay quiet and listen right now, young lady," he said with
a dismissive wave. "I'm sure you're all confused by what happened
with Cam just now. I'm afraid he's had a seizure and had to be taken
to the infirmary. We'll keep an eye on him there, but he may need to
be transferred to a proper hospital. If that happens, someone will let
you know."

Before any of us could respond, he'd disappeared through the
door again. I didn't believe Slater's story for a second, but as I
struggled to process what I'd seen, the technician emerged from the
polygraph room and called my name. Once inside, he hooked me up
and then sat down.

The polygraph machine was designed to monitor physiological
signs like heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension, the theory being
that changes might signal someone attempting to be untruthful. We
went through our usual routine, beginning with questions like name,
age, and favorite color. In other words, things I had no reason to lie
about. This gave them a baseline to compare against when they asked
the important questions relating to visions. We had to take a
polygraph every morning to report any visions we'd had since the
previous morning. My test that morning went quickly since I hadn't
had a vision since the previous day. As the technician unhooked me, I
decided to see what I could find out about the unusual events we'd

"What happened to Cam?" I asked, but as I did, I jabbed out
with my mind, almost as though I were forcing my way into his brain
to give him a nudge.

The tech's eyes went glassy and distant. "He lied. He wouldn't
tell us what he saw, so they took him."

"What will they do to him?" Nudge, nudge.

"Probably get rid of him."

"Send him home?"

"Nope. He'll never go home."

My breath caught and I took a step back. If Cam wasn’t going
home, did getting rid of him mean they would kill him? It was the
only other explanation I could think of. While I stood there in shock,
the technician came to his senses and gave me a confused look. "You
can go now."

In a daze, I headed for breakfast in the cafeteria, but I was too
distracted to eat. Because Cam lied, they were going to get rid of him.
From what the tech had said, it sounded like they would…kill him. I
knew that the Consortium that ran the X5 Project was crooked, but I
never dreamed that they might actually kill people. My hands shook
and a wave of nausea came over me. Ignoring the questions of my
friends, I jumped up and bolted from the table and into the women's
bathroom down the hall. I barely made it to the toilet before I spewed
the contents of my stomach. Thank goodness it was still morning and
my stomach was still fairly empty. Dry heaves followed, and when
they subsided, I sat on the floor and leaned against the door of the

There was a gentle knock. "Tara? Are you okay?" It was

Taking a deep breath, I managed to stand and open the door.

"I'm okay," I said weakly. "Stomach flu or something. What the hell
are you doing in the ladies' room?"

"It's just one of the many sacrifices I'm willing to make for my
bestie." He held out a bottle of water. This was one of the things that
made Mike such a great friend. Not only did he know when
something was bothering me, he could usually make me feel better. "I
thought you might want this."

With a grateful smile, I took the bottle, uncapped it, and took a
couple sips. "Thank you."

"Do you want me to take you to the infirmary?"

"No. I think I'll be fine. But I'm going to go to my room and
brush my teeth before first period."

Excuse made, I took off for the safety of my room. As I
brushed my teeth, I was glad to have a bathroom that I didn't have to
share with anyone else. At The Bunker, all of us had a great bedroom,
complete with en suite bathroom, all to ourselves. Someone else did
all the cooking and cleaning. The teachers didn't give us too much
homework. We had excellent, free medical care, and the coolest
common room. Most sixteen year olds would love to have this life,
but after what had happened that morning, I knew I had to get out,
before The Consortium decided I was expendable, too.


I wasn't dumb enough to just try to make a run for it, or I'd end
up in the same boat as Cam. I needed a plan, and in order to come up
with a good one, I had to find out as much as I could about The
Bunker. For the first time since I'd gotten here, I really started paying
attention to my surroundings, especially the security in and around the
prison—I mean, habitat. It didn't take me long to figure out that I
couldn't do this on my own.

So how to choose an escape partner? As far as I knew, I was
the only person who had any idea about the true nature of this place.
Since he was my best friend, Mike was the natural choice for a
confidant. But I also needed someone who was strong enough to use
physical force if we needed it. At five foot three inches tall, and
barely over a hundred pounds, I wasn't delusional enough to think I
would be the strong one in the partnership.

One day out on the exercise yard (I did mention that it was
like a prison, didn't I?) I sat in the middle of the yard, enjoying the
spring breeze, and absent-mindedly pulling out blades of grass while I
watched the other kids. In particular, I was studying Mike's body. He
was around six feet, and though he was thin, his wiry arms were
muscular. I knew he lifted weights in the gym, so he had to be in
decent shape. He turned away from his friend Andy, with whom he'd
been tossing a football around, and caught my eye. He grinned and
came walking over to me.

"Don't think I don't see you checking out my ass," he said as
he flopped down beside me.

"You're an idiot," I said, tossing the loose grass at him. "Why
would I be checking out your ass?"

"Because it's just so sexy," he replied, getting up on his hands
and knees and shaking his butt at me.

"Oh, please."

"Please, what? Please take you off to my room so we can have
wild sex? Gladly." He waggled his eyebrows at me.

"Be serious! I want to talk to you."

He sat up then. "What's up?" he asked.

Now that I had him there, I wasn't sure how to proceed. I
glanced around to make sure no one else was nearby, and we were
well away from trees or walls that might have listening devices
planted in them. This was definitely a conversation I didn't want
overheard. I wondered if it was possible that they had the entire yard
bugged, in which case, how could I let him know my suspicions?
Looking around, I noticed a vent with an exhaust fan in one of the
building walls. The noise from the fan might muffle the sound of our
voices enough to keep whoever was listening from figuring out what
we were saying.

I stood up and grabbed Mike’s hand. “Walk with me.” As we
made our way to the fan, I asked him a couple questions about an
assignment we had. Once we were close to the building, I was pleased
to hear how much noise the vent made.

I leaned close to Mike so he could hear me. "You remember
Cam having that seizure last week?"

"Sure," he replied. "Pretty hard to forget that."

"He didn't really have a seizure. He lied on his polygraph, and
because of that, they got rid of him." I spoke fast, and when I finished,

Mike just stood looking at me.

"Got rid of him?" he asked finally.

After another glance around, I said, "I think they killed him."

His eyebrows knit together and he gave me a look that
suggested he was questioning my sanity. "Oh, come on. Why would
they do that? And even if they did, how did you find out?"

"The polygraph technician told me."

He sputtered a laugh. "As if he'd share something like that
with you!"

I decided that a little demonstration of my powers would make
him believe me. In a low voice, I explained how I was able to
convince people to do things and because of it, I'd learned some
things that I didn't like.

"You can convince people to do things? Bullshit."

"Want me to prove it?”

While he laughed, I started nudging him with my mind. Sit
down against the wall. Sit down against the wall. His laughter cut off
and, with a look of confusion, he walked over to the wall and sat
down. When he started to stand up again, I used my power to keep
him on the ground, and then sat down beside him. "Now do you
believe me?"

He nodded. "That was bizarre. I wanted to get up, but I
couldn’t do it. Why didn't you just use your power to make me
believe you?"

"I wanted you to believe because you realized it was true, not
because I made you."

"So you used this ability to find stuff out?"

“Yes, but it hasn’t been easy and I don’t know everything. I’ve
picked up bits and pieces of knowledge, but I’ve had to guess at the
rest. What I know for sure is that the X5 Project is run by a group of
people called The Consortium. I have no idea who belongs to the
group, but I know they have money. Shitloads of money. And
apparently, they use our visions to help them make more of it.”

"If greed is their motivation," Mike interrupted, "keeping a
group of kids locked up in a habitat in the middle of nowhere doesn't
seem to be the most efficient use of their money."

"You remember the Dream Seers online forum? They use that
as well. Most of us were members of that network before applying to
come here. At least, we were all told we had applied."

"What do you mean? I remember filling out those forms and
my parents dropping me off, and everything."

"You know Margaret, that psychic trainer?" He nodded. "She
can modify our memories. She convinced every single person who
came from outside the Habitat that they were here voluntarily, but the
reality is that they abducted all of us."

Mike sat in silence, staring off into the distance. "Wait," he
said finally. "If we're all kidnapped, how can we still have
conversations with our parents?"

"It’s not really our parents, it’s just employees pretending."

“No freaking way, Tara!” He jumped up. “This is just too
unbelievable. You’re basically telling me that the life I think I’m
leading is a lie.”

He started to walk away, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him
back beside the vent. “Don’t raise your voice! They’ve got bugs
planted everywhere, inside and out, but the noise of the fan should
cover up what we’re saying.”

"You know how crazy this all sounds, right?" he asked.

“I know it does, but you have to believe me! The whole thing
with Cam has me terrified. I have to get out of here, but I need your
help. We can escape together!” Begging wasn’t my usual style, but I
needed him to see that I was right.

He didn’t say anything, just stared at the ground where he was
kicking at a little patch of dirt. I watched his face, waiting for some
kind of reaction. At last, he looked up at me. “You’re determined to
get out of here, aren’t you?”


Reaching out, he brushed my cheek, and then tucked a loose
strand of hair behind my ear. “Then I can’t let you go alone.”

"Thank you." I hugged him, and the embrace lasted longer
than usual, though I was so relieved he’d agreed to come with me that
I didn’t say anything. We were escaping! I just hoped we could pull it
off without anyone getting killed.


That evening, I was sitting in the common room watching TV
with some of the other girls, when Mike came up to us and asked if he
could talk to me on the other side of the room. This earned giggles
from my friends and a few whispered comments as I followed him to
a chair in a secluded corner. Mike and I talking in private was nothing
new, so I couldn't figure out what their problem was. When he pulled
me down onto his lap, it startled me.

He wrapped his arms around my waist and leaned close. "If
we’re going to get out of here, we need a plan," he whispered. "What
do you need me to do?"

Excitement raced through me. I leaned close, so my lips were
nearly touching his ear, and I felt him shiver. "Are you okay?" I
asked. He shifted a bit underneath me and nodded. I began to tell him
about the escape kit I wanted to put together, but I hadn't gotten very
far before one of the other boys walked past and wolf-whistled at us.

As I watched him go, I noticed a few of the other kids talking and
pointing at us.

"They think we're hooking up because you’re sitting in my
lap," he whispered, tightening his arms around me. "You know, if we
say we're dating, it gives us an excuse to always be close to each

He pulled back a bit to look me in the eye, and in those deep
blue pools I saw desire. That wasn’t new, but now, for the first time,
there was no joking around to go with it. Before I could say anything,
he threaded his fingers into my hair, pulled my head close, and
pressed his lips to mine.

I've seen a lot of romantic movies, and read my share of
romance novels, and I had always expected my first kiss to make the
world spin, and throw my body into an intense state of arousal. Mike's
lips were soft and warm and the pressure he applied to my mouth was
firm, without being forceful. All in all, a pleasant experience. But not

Catcalls echoed from across the room, and Mike pulled away
to look at me, a huge grin on his face, happier than I'd seen him in a
long time. "I've been wanting to do that," he murmured. I didn't reply,
but as he studied my face, his smile faded. He started to stand and I
jumped off before I fell to the floor.

"Mike!" But he was already stalking toward the hallway for
the boys' rooms.

"Shit," I mumbled as I raced after him. Between his head start,
and legs way longer than mine, he slammed the door to his room
before I could catch up. I pounded on the door. "Mike! Please, talk to

There was no answer from within, and I figured he was just
being stubborn. So I kept knocking. Continually. The knuckles on
both of my hands were sore as hell, but he finally opened the door.


"Can we please talk about this?" I asked. He started to close
the door on me, but I managed to slip in before he could. "Please?"

"Whatever," he said and stomped over to his bed, where he
sprawled out on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

With a sigh, I sat on the bed beside him. "Mike, you're my best

"Friend," he said. "Yeah, I got it." Neither one of us said
anything for a moment. "I think we could be really good together." He
sat up to look at me.


He held up a hand to cut me off. "Hear me out," he said. "And
please don't freak out at what I'm about to do."

Grabbing my hand, he tugged me down so we were lying
beside each other. With his arms around me, he whispered in my ear.

"I'm guessing you don't want a relationship, and that's fair enough.
But if we need to plot an escape together, we need an excuse to be
always whispering, to always be this close. Nobody can overhear us
like this. Let me show you."

He planted soft kisses along my jawline, under my chin, down
my neck. And I'd be lying if I said I felt nothing. My stomach
fluttered a little, even more so when I closed my eyes and tried to
imagine that it wasn't Mike. That sounds awful, but we'd been friends
for so long, that it was hard for me to think of him as more than that.
He drifted back to my ear again.

"If we do this in the common areas, no one would guess that
we were really talking." To further demonstrate his point, he kissed
his way to the other ear. "We can pretend to everyone else that we're
seeing each other." More kisses down my neck and back up. "But
we'll still have to kiss when we're out there."

At that point, he lifted his head to look down at me. In his
eyes, I saw the desire from before, but also a look I couldn't decipher
as easily. He made a good argument, but would he remember that the
relationship was a ruse? Would I? He lowered his lips to mine, the
contact tentative at first, testing my reaction. I had to make a decision.
I wrapped my arms around him and returned his kiss.


It didn't take long for word of our new relationship status to
travel through The Bunker. I wasn't prepared for all the questions the
other girls threw at me, though. They wanted to know if he was a
good kisser, how we decided to go out, how far we'd already gone. By
the time Kelley asked me if I was going to sleep with him, my face
could have lit the entire room, it was so red.

Mike took advantage of our little charade by kissing me as
much as possible whenever we were in a common area. I tried to keep
him on track by outlining our plans for escape.

"We're surrounded by forests, so we'll need supplies until we
can get to a town," I whispered. Every day, we would sneak a nonperishable
food item out of the cafeteria: one day a granola bar,
another day a package of crackers, or whatever else we could get our
hands on and smuggle easily. Mike was also in charge of bringing
water bottles since he was able to carry more in his backpack. If
anyone caught us with the food, we could just say we needed a snack.
We were technically allowed to take food outside the cafeteria, but I
didn't think they'd approve of us stockpiling it. I stashed my supplies
under the bottom drawer of my dresser.

But more food wasn't our biggest concern. I had been told that
we had tracking chips implanted in us so that security could track our
whereabouts. If we managed to find our way out of here, we had to
make sure no one could follow us, and that meant getting the tracking
chips out of our arms. A few times I had faked being sick and when
they took me to the infirmary, I stole a scalpel, some bandages, and a
few other first aid supplies that might come in handy. Using a razor
sharp knife to cut into my own flesh or Mike's was a little daunting,
but it would be necessary if—no, when we escaped.

As the weeks, and then months, passed, our stash of supplies
grew, along with our knowledge of the security system. We all had ID
cards that opened our rooms and allowed us to get out to the exercise
yard, but if we wanted to go anywhere else, we needed an employee
pass. I figured it would be easy enough to talk someone out of one,
but the situation had to be right. Leaving at night seemed like our best
option as there were very few staff members on the residence level
after dinner and it was likely that the rest of the complex would be the
same. But if we took a pass too early in the day, the employee would
be able to report it as lost, and they'd probably disable it before we
had a chance to leave. If we waited until nighttime, we might not be
able to get out before the employee realized what had happened and
security was alerted.

The problem of the ID cards had me stumped, and it stalled
our progress. The longer we went without a solution, the more

frustrated and desperate to escape I became.

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