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Once Tom emerged out of that tunnel, he looked around him. The line of hot-air balloons wasn’t visible. Large trees with strange, curvy branches and roots had substituted the buildings.

“Are you all right?” Jess said, inspecting him from top to bottom. “Did you get shot?”

“I’m fine,” he said as he took in the bright green of the landscape. “What is this place?”

Jess looked heavenward. “It’s the back of Elemental-6. We aren’t that far from—”

“Someone was shooting at you—at us!” He shook his head as understanding dawned him. “Jess, are you hurt? Do they—”

“Back there… What were you thinking …” Jess cleared her throat. “I have never seen you fight before. What were you planning to do?  Where you really going to hang him? That would have killed him...”

Tom forced a chuckle. He had never considered himself as a violent person, but he wasn’t going to deny how good it felt to punch that bastard, to make sure he stopped laughing at Jess. And if something had happened to her, his answer would be different. 

“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. Who was shooting at us? And what were those screams following us?”

Jess rubbed her face and sighed, but instead of her usual avoidance, this time Tom got some answers. 

“The screams were the takuosums. They live in this region. We are closer to the Barrier, and it’s a smaller city.” She started to walk down a dirt path.

“The shots… I don’t know. They could be from anyone here.”


She smiled, nodding. “You are hardly the only one who hates agents.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Or it could be personal, although I doubt it. I don’t think anyone has figured out the truth about Marshall and I… yet.”

Tom pressed his mouth shut and followed her in silence for a while. The trees were majestic,  big with vibrant colors, and just like Jess told him, great to hide predators. Before long, the rain washed the mud off his clothes and boots, and the puddles turned into a small stream. If it wasn’t for the freezing cold, his numbing fingers, or the hunger now turning to starvation, he just may have enjoyed the quiet tour.

“I don’t hate agents, Jess.” He didn’t dare to meet her eyes. “I’m sorry I haven’t been supportive of your life choices, but I have been shot at twice in the last two days. I have never been shot before. Those weird creatures are trying to hunt us so they can eat us. You know how crazy that sounds? And I can’t—”

“I’m sorry, Tom. You shouldn’t be here. Chaos isn’t a nice place. I didn’t use my best judgment in bringing you here.” She sighed. “I promise I’ll protect you while I—”

“No, Jess.” He stood in front of her. “It isn’t me who I’m worried about. It’s you. Don’t you see? My problem with the Agency isn’t the theories and make up conspiracies we heard about, Jess. It’s the danger it puts your life in. It has always been that.” For a second, the way her eyes rested on his made him take a step forward and reach for her hand. “I should have explained it like this before. And for all the time we—”

“There you are!” a woman yelled she approached them. “Holm sent a message hours ago! What the photons happened?”The moment she was close enough, she hugged Jess. “I’m so sorry.  Oh, Jess, I can’t believe it.”

The woman broke into tears, and Tom thought Jess was going to cry too, but she pulled back and, with a nod, brushed away the topic.

“We had some issues with the Tracker, but I think I found the right epoxy.”

“We? Right! Holm mentioned you were with a—” The woman stared at Tom for the first time. Without warning or reason, her eyes darted at him while she used her index as an accusatory tool.

“How dare you to wear his jacket? You can’t just take it. Did you kill him? Where is Peter?”

“I didn’t kill anyone!” Tom said, taking a step back and holding his hands up. “I don’t even know who the photons Peter is!”

Jess blocked the woman before she smashed a branch on Tom’s head. “Gall-I, Peter isn’t here. He is in Axiom. Tom did nothing to him. He is just borrowing his jacket.”

Gall-I backed away while wiping her tears, but still narrowing her eyes at him. “I don’t trust this Tom, Jess. He has the look.”

“What look?” Tom said, but she ignored him.

“Let’s get out of here,” Gall-I said, holding the branch close of her and frowning at Tom. “The takuosums had been crazy since… you know. Better stay out of the forest for now.”

Jess turned to Tom with a shy smile and whispered, “This is Gall-I 31. She’s a good friend, but life here toughens you up.”

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