Learning to Spy


elliot2_icon.gif wf_squeaks_icon4.gif

Scene Title Learning to Spy
Synopsis Elliot offers to train Squeaks in the finer points of spycraft.
Date July 6, 2021

Elliot raises a thermos to the roof of the news van, cluttered as it is with communications equipment and a teenager. Steam wafts from the open top along with the scent of chicken bouillon, one of the Rat Market’s better finds. “Can I interest you in some technically not soup before we begin?” he asks. If nothing else, it should serve as a good sensory anchor for forming a link.

He traces his eyes over the vehicle looking for handholds, but ultimately decides that he doesn’t have the flexibility to join Squeaks on her perch. “That can’t possibly be comfortable,” he says.

Chesterton, IN
The Flooded Timeline

Tuesday, July 6th

Squeaks’ head is already turned so she’s looking in Elliot’s direction by the time he’s placed the thermos on the van roof. She probably heard him coming, even with all the extra sounds around from the other travelers with their own conversations and movements. She twists around onto her elbows and belly and basically slithers toward the side to investigate.

“The wind…” she begins, then “oh,” finishes it when he decides against making the short climb. It’s no matter. Climbing down is much easier than climbing up anyway, and the teen makes no complaints of doing so. She even grabs the thermos, after a probing foot finds a hold on the hub of a wheel, and tucks it in the crook of one arm while the other guides her to the ground.

Once her feet are firmly on the gravel again, Squeaks takes a whole second to investigate the contents of the thermos. “It’s soup,” she states like it’s a fact. “Even if it doesn’t have food chunks in it.” She sniffs and then indulges in a teeny tiny taste, while side-eyeing Elliot.

Elliot gives her a moment to sample the broth before launching into his proposition for the evening. "Would you like to learn some infiltration skills?" he asks. He'd taken the day off from maintaining constant links, having finally slept while Katie was on the road. "The good kind of spy shit, not the James Bond kind. No drinking allowed."

“Drinking is too spicy.” Such is Squeaks’ matter-of-fact opinion. She’s much more interested in infiltrating and other parts of being a spy, shown by the way she takes another rushed sip of soup — because who knows when the next meal is — and sets the thermos on the hood of the van. “Yes, I’m ready.”

"Excellent," Elliot says. "I'll be able to share most of my knowledge telepathically, which will give you a major headstart, but a lot of the finer details you're going to need to learn through practice. You don't want to suddenly not know how to use the skill if the link breaks. Some of it you've already got down pat, you're one of the sneakiest people I've ever met and that's great. Other facets of going unnoticed might be less intuitive, and different situations call for different behaviors. Going unseen being different from blending in and all that."

He extends his hand to establish a new link. "You know the drill," he says. He's been especially careful setting links with Squeaks; her traumatic memories are to be avoided as much as possible. "Tell me when you're ready, and break contact if you need to start over."

Squeaks scrubs her hands first against the legs of her jeans, then reaches for the one being offered by Elliot. At the very last instant, like she has each time before, she hesitates. It's a sort of holdover in case either needs to abort. Or wants to. But it barely lasts a second. The pause could fit between the tick of a clock that marks the change between one-sixtieth of a minute and the next. Her hand grasps his, and she makes a little nod with her head.

Elliot smiles reassuringly, and as always doesn’t grasp the offered hands. His remain to be held, easily released should she change her mind. His eyes relax as he brings himself to the mindstate needed to reach into hers for what’s offered. “Ready when you are,” he says. “Say when.”

Squeaks, concentrating hard enough that her face gets a little scrunched, blows out a breath. Not that making the connection is really hard anymore, but sharing is. It’s easier to talk and not say the things she doesn’t want to remember out loud. But remembering inside is different, it’s sometimes dark and

the bubble of soury dread bursts. For just barely three seconds there were lines in the almost complete darkness, visibly for only as long as it took for her voice to cut off from surprise. Some were curvy and some straight and at first it made no sense at all. All those lines forming shapes and practically all around her for as far as she could see. How did it happen?

Squeaks cups her hands around her mouth and hoots again. It’s a longer note this time, by six or seven more seconds, and she resists the impulse to cut it off and clamp her hands over her mouth when the sounds ping back at her. And not just the sound, but the lines…

Gravely ground crunches underfoot as the teen turns a circle. Her eyes, wide with wonder, pick at the details for as long as she can hold the sound. Small pebbles pop against the dark canvas of the floor, the wall defines itself with angles and dots that seem scratched into nothingness, like a roughly drawn wireframe blueprint. Squeaks’ feet draw her around and around, slowly so she can study and marvel and still make clacks and hoos.


"Does the loudness of your clicks change the distance and resolution of the sound wave?" Elliot asks, kicking through the fallen branches of trees just inside the woods adjacent to the camp. He's looking for something that he could carve into a pair of practice knives for when she's ready for that part of training. "That is to say, do you have to sacrifice perceptive range and quality in order to use your ability stealthily around listeners?"

“No.” Squeaks sounds so casual with her answer, and very sure of it. She's pulled herself onto a fallen tree, something that looks like rot had taken its toll, and balances with her arms held out to her sides. Slowly she walks up the angled length of the tree “Sometimes people can hear it, if it’s real quiet or… maybe when the place is good for echoing. But usually no one can hear it. If I want to see more, like how the bark folds on the tree? I have to do more clicks to get more details, but then I can't see as far either.”

Elliot hums in understanding as he kicks at a stick that could do the trick. “Can you tell anything about material composition?” he asks as he fishes the stick from under a blanket of pine needles. “Like the difference between a cloth shirt and body armor?” He whacks the stick against a tree to dislodge the wet filth that clings to it.

At the top of the angled log, Squeaks lets her arms down and tilts her head to think. Has she ever really considered differences? “I don't know.” She hasn't tried. Either it's a thing or it isn't, except when she really tries to pick out the details. But even that's not anything she’s done a lot. “Maybe, if I tried? Sometimes I can tell by how the sounds come back, but… I didn't try try to tell what it was.”

“It’d be worth some experimentation, I think,” Elliot says, swiping away the last of the dirt on the stick. “If you can see the weak spots between someone’s armored areas, it would be a lot easier to subdue them with that enormous knife of yours. Let me see that machete, by the way.”

Squeaks’ head tilts to the other side, curiouser. She's almost tempted to try it, to see how much effort she needs to see through fabrics and stuff, to find openings. But she stops short of making sounds because she has to scoff a laugh at Elliot.

The teen jumps from the tree, landing just below where she'd started. “It's a knife,” she points out, straightening. “Machetes are longer and broader.” To prove her point, Squeaks draws the knife from her belt, taking a moment to fold her fingers around the familiar handle before offering it over.

"Factually accurate," Elliot admits as he accepts the knife and compares it against his selected stick, "though this is as big a knife as I would use and I'm a giant compared to you. For stealthy operations I prefer something a little smaller. Not to say this one isn't fine quality or doesn't have very useful features in an outdoors application. Like the here and now."

He spins the knife, handing it back to its owner pommel first. "And since it's what you have, it's what we'll train with," he concedes. "Well, we'll start with a mock-up so things don't get too stabby." He holds up his branch to explain its presence. He smiles, stripping bark with his hands before picking at the more stubborn bits around a twig with his knife.

“I can't help it that you're so tall,” Squeaks says with a shrug. Her knife is returned to its sheath. “I'm just the right size and I used this knife to save Captain Ben’s life.”

Squeaks slinks off behind some overgrowth. “We were fighting the Sentinel for the first time, they had Huruma outnumbered, and two to one against the captain.” She creeps through the brush like she had in the belly of the Cerberus. “Captain Ben got one down, but he was getting beat until…”

The teen leaps at the invisible enemy, going low for the legs. Her knife, which is still sheathed, is mimed cutting and stabbing into her foe.

Elliot chuckles at the demonstration. "I'm going to guess that most people you fight will be taller than you," he says. "But you can have an advantage by learning what it's like for me to try to attack you. Learn to use my momentum against me because you'll be able to stream me during the fight."

"And I don't mean to disparage your accomplishments," he adds, tapping the flat of the knife against the bare stick. "If I didn't think you were capable I wouldn't have suggested honing your skills. That's pretty awesome, though. Going for the legs is always a good idea."

“I'm smaller and it makes it harder for you,” Squeaks doesn't really make it an observation. There's a tiny little lift to her tone turning it into a question instead. She straightens and looks up at Elliot. “How do I use your momentum though? I don't understand.”

"Like if I reach just to the edge of my ability to balance," he explains, "it would only take a pull to make me extend too far and fall over." He begins shaping the stick in earnest, whittling long strips from one end.

"So while your height is a disadvantage versus my reach," he continues, "it isn't the only thing that matters in an altercation. You just need to become familiar with the mechanics of movement and center of gravity."

"Stream," he instructs, leaning away from her, stick blade extended, so she can feel how precarious his balance becomes.

When she first turns her attention to Elliot’s perspective, Squeaks’ face scrunches a little, with her nose wrinkling and eyebrows bunching. It's disorienting at first, like when you spin around too long with your eyes closed and then open them and try to walk. Because it isn't really her barely balancing.

And after two or three seconds, when she’s sure she's steady on her own feet, she leans toward one side and then the other. In some way she’s getting an idea of just how close to tipping Elliot is, and just where to push to make him fall over.

Elliot doesn't give her the immediate opportunity to test his balance with a shove as he's still holding a deployed automatic knife in one hand, standing. He looks at the imprints left in his palm by dramatically clutching the stick he's been whittling into a practice knife. He sighs, tapping the real knife against the dummy.

"Obviously there's a lot more to learn about it," he says, planing down one side of the blade as Squeaks is testing her balance. "And in the sneakiness profession, outright knife duels are generally less optimal than unexpected attacks. So another big teaching point will be where all the lethal bits are."

"And the non-lethal ones," he adds with a shrug. "Killing people is generally also less optimal than a surprise nap, but you don't always get to choose the best option."

"That's true," Squeaks says quietly, but with the weight of knowing the fact and truth of it. It's heavy and dark knowledge, so she steers away from it. Somewhere there's a stick that'll work just fine for her, for now.

Old leaf litter and ground stuff is swept around with a foot. And some thin branches are pulled at but not broken off. They're too small and twiggy. Her hand grabs hold of a branchy bit sticking out under a half dried bush

"I'm pretty good at sneaking though." Squeaks looks up from testing the stick. It might be too big. She's just looking for something close to knife-size. "I bet… I bet I could tag anyone in our group without being caught." Probably even Elliot, but she's careful not to say it.

Elliot hums in agreement. “You’re not wrong,” he agrees. “You’ve snuck up on me more than once, and we were linked for a couple of them.”

“Tag is an interesting idea,” he muses. “Can you pick a pocket?”

While her expression remains pretty neutral, Squeaks’ eyebrows push upward a little bit…

Much, much later

Even though a couple of flames still flicker and some embers glow from the evening’s fire, it’s still pretty dark at night. But Squeaks doesn’t mind it very much, she can see what the shadows really are no matter how they move or change in the firelight. And she’s not even more than a shadow herself, sitting small and as still as a rock at the edge of the brushy area where she spent the day with Elliot.

Small clicks and chirps build wire-frame like shapes to show her the vehicles that make up the convoy. Frizzle and Katie are probably the easiest to recognize with their pretty distinct shapes, but the teen remembers where they all stopped, so there isn’t any guessing where the others are.

Elliot stares disinterestedly at a water jug, filling a plastic cup that used to be the lid to a thermos. Judging by the timeworn remains of an embossed cartoon character on the bottom, it was part of a child's lunchbox in ages past. He drinks, scanning the darkness around him to have something for his eyes to do while his senses are largely elsewhere.

"Echolocation is awesome," he barely whispers, vocalization unnecessary as Squeaks can feel the way he forms the words in his mouth. "I don't know if I've told you that yet." They're far enough away from each other that proprioception doesn't help him pinpoint her in the environment. All he has is his knowledge of the layout of the camp and their separate perspectives within it.

He sets down the cup.
Don't forget you can sign if you're too busy chirping to talk, he signs, pulling her attention to the skill for the reminder of where to pull to know how.

The outlines fade and relative uncertainty about the darker shapes is returned. Except Squeaks knows where everything is, even when she can't really see it. She nods at Elliot's reminder, but decides she doesn't need to sign just yet. Maybe she won't at all, if she can sneak in and out of the camp.

Like a ghost but quieter, the teen separates herself from the overgrown weeds and things. Her movements are slight and swift, prowling and slinking toward sleeping convoy. Her footfalls make a little sound since gravel and other debris can't be all avoided completely. But some people snore and others sleep with music in their heads, and there's probably at least one person who could sleep through the worst most biggest loudest crashing siren ever. So a little faint scuffing is probably going to go unnoticed.

Every now and then, she chirps and clicks. It's only just enough to get an idea of where she is and what's in and close to her path. Like snapshots that mark her trail and give Elliot a different perspective every time she updates her mental map.

Squeaks' path takes her away from the most obvious choices of paths. She avoids the dying firelight and those places she can't hide in and anywhere someone might be out patrolling or doing other business. Shadows and nooks that most people would overlook are used like familiar tools. Especially those spots that seem too small for someone to fit in. Small and skinny as she is, the whole place is a constantly changing obstacle course and to her it's all a game. One that she's had a lot of practice playing.

Pausing in the narrow space between Speedwagon's front wheel and wheel well, Squeaks takes another wireframe survey of the camp. Like every other time, the image fades after one or two seconds, but this time she holds her place for a really long time, going at least as still as she was before she got into the camp.

It isn't the hour that it feels like. It's only a few minutes, like five or seven maybe. She clicks again and the image returns, pretty much the same as before, but this time she moves before it even fades away.

Squeaks creeps away from Wildcat and then along Scout's profile. Her next chirp puts Wildcat in front of her, and the girl hides herself between the middle and back wheels for a quarter of a minute. Her head tilts to one side when she pauses, listening and waiting, then she's on the move again, but this time she's going up.

Sure hands and feet work with arms and legs to bring the teenager up the side of the transport truck with ease and without shaking the vehicle. Her size helps of course, but it's mostly all skill. Especially when it comes to easing herself into the back of the transport, into where people are sleeping, without stepping or falling on anything and waking someone up.

Elliot stays quiet, letting Squeaks make her way as she feels best. He keeps an eye on motions in the camp, drawing her attention to a late night rambler near the center of camp. It's unlikely they'll stray close to her current position, but situational awareness is key.

The outlines of seats and the things that are found in the transport pop all over again. Crisp lines fade quickly and then pop again before they can totally disappear, almost just like a flip book animation showing nearly exactly what Squeaks sees as she ghosts through the sleeping space. This close, she doesn't need to focus for details, she can make pretty good guesses at who's who from the half showing faces and personal things left beside them. Except for one or two curious looks at something in the dark, she makes her way deeper and nearer to a target she's decided on.

Two and then three sets of bunks are passed, and the fourth she almost goes by also. But near the head of it, the girl stops, tilts her head, and studies the image her ability gives her. She turns to the left, easing herself down onto her knees, and as carefully as if she was defusing a bomb, twitches back the sleeping bag just enough to expose Edward Ray's face.

Squeaks fishes into her pocket. Her movements are so small, even her breath is tiny, while she works a marker free. The cap is removed with some careful twists, kept close to her body that she holds slightly hunched to be ignored like a random night shadow if anyone half woke up. A quick pause and survey of the space gives her a clear moment and only one shot.

In the dark it's hard to see. Echolocation doesn't really help when putting ink on skin so she relies on her own memory and the not frequent flicker of images from her ability. Squeaks has to squint and strain to even see a portion of what she's doing. But after only a few minutes — and some heart thrilling pauses to make sure no one, especially not Edward, is more than turning over in their sleep — her masterpiece is complete:

a fair likeness of Swedish Chef’s eyebrows and mustaches in faintly raspberry scented magenta by Mr. Sketch drawn on the man’s face.

Elliot has been pinching the bridge of his nose for several minutes, trying to contain convulsive laughter and partially succeeding. This is not what he expected at all, and his and Wright’s amusement both rattle through the network.

“Okay,” Elliot says after several false starts, “okay now get out of there. If you get caught, we've never met.” He giggles helplessly again, wiping a tear from his eyes as he looks about for more potential security threats.

“She can never meet Ames,” Wright says between laughs she doesn't need to try to contain. “They would be too powerful.”

Squeaks answers Elliot’s warning by crumpling. Someone on a nearby bunk mutters and half snores in their sleep, but she poses like a lumpy shadow that could also just be a discarded blanket. A small click three seconds later shows that no one is actually up. But she still waits almost another minute just to be sure.

Once comfortable that no one is rousing and her path out is clear, Squeaks slinks back the way she'd come all along the row of bunks. Just like entering the vehicle, the teen keeps her movements small when she climbs out into the night air.

The next morning…

The sun has barely created the horizon, but already the call to break camp and get moving has been made. And that's putting it nicely. There might have been some choicer words used, not that Squeaks would know. She's bright eyed and busy and has been since the first shout. Her own belongings are already stowed for the trip and she's hard at work scrubbing grime off headlights.

Elliot scuffs over to Squeaks as he rubs the last bits of sleep from his face. “Good morning,” he says.

He pulls a finished wooden practice knife from his coat pocket, flipping it to grab by the blade before presenting the hilt to Squeaks. “Probably won't have a lot of knife practice time at our next stop,” he says, “but this ought to serve once we get to the stabby parts of training.”

Squeaks tilts her head to look up at Elliot, making a sort of “Oh” sound like she wasn't expecting him. Or maybe she wasn't expecting the practice knife so soon, since she blinks at it a whole second later. It could even be that she just didn't think there wouldn't be time for practicing things.

“Where is next?” Squeaks takes the fake knife — actually she trades the knife for the rag she's been scrubbing with — and fits it into her belt beside the real one.

“New Chicago, apparently,” Elliot says, scratching at his short beard. “The first settlement I've heard of here that uses the entire name of the location as the location name. Pelago, Delphi, Anchor. Gotta respect the New Chicagoans for that at least. Fuck, I wonder if they have deep dish pizza there.”

“There’s pizza in Chicago?” She might have just asked where, probably could start wondering about the choice in names and had a good conversation about it with Elliot, but what Squeaks latches entirely onto is the prospect of pizza. She looks up at him, wide-eyed and intense in her search for fact or fiction.

The girl swivels on the balls of her feet and steps to where she can be better seen by the convoy. “We have to go!” Squeaks waves her arms to make everyone move more faster. “Time to move on and …and …we’re wasting daylight!”

The din of distant laughter punctuates Squeaks’ assertion to move onward. Laughter coming from the direction of the Wildcat, where a tired Edward Ray has just slouched his way out of the vehicle. Rubbing the side of his face with one hand, Edward doesn’t realize the occasional snickers and side-long glances are meant for him.

He greets the morning with a smear of sweat-smudged ink across one side of his face and a single enormous eyebrow colored in over the other, and half a mustache. Heedless, Edward turns toward the camp being broken down with a hearty, “Good morning!” to Destiny

and her shriek of laughter carries into the morning fog.

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