Semipermanent hiatus, and a new novel

You've probably guessed by the lack of updates, but I'm putting The Y People on at least semipermanent hiatus. I'm not saying I'll never go back to it, but I don't have immediate plans to do so.

Instead, I've started a new novel, The Gryphon Clerks. Heroic steampunk-fantasy civil servants. And since I have a much clearer idea of where I'm going with it, it has a much better chance of completion. 

Go now and subscribe to updates!

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The Y People, Chapter 12: A Kick in the Guts

I've hinted at this before, but if they ever make a movie about Karen, they're not going to cast Keira Knightley in the lead. She's not plump, but she's what I'd call a healthy weight - and most of it came down forcefully on my solar plexus. It knocked the breath out of me - and once the breath was out, it was hard to get any in again, because she was now crushing my chest.

I'm not very coherent when I first wake up at the best of times. In fact, it usually takes me until three-quarters of the way through breakfast before my mental functioning is above the level of, say, a chimp. A chimp who's received a heavy blow to the head, at that. So waking up because I just received a heavy blow to the stomach meant that the events of the next few moments were a meaningless blur.

I made some kind of reflexive movement and contacted something soft and yielding, whereupon a siren went off next to my ear. The weight on top of me vanished, and shrieking receded into the distance.

Kevin sat up beside me. I clutched my ear fuzzily and blinked at him. I may have made some kind of monkey noise.

Kevin has known me since small times. He hauled me up and got some orange juice into me, and before long I was able to have a tentative reunion with my friend Cognition.

"What happened there?" he asked when he noticed the dawn of consciousness.

"No clue, dude. Someone landed on me, that's all I know."

"That was Karen."


"Yeah, I think she must have tripped over you and fallen. Powers are back, stronger than ever. I suppose Jane turned the machine off."

"So I was invisible. And she tripped over me, and fell..."

"Buttocks-first, it looks like."

"Straight into my wind. Oh, no."


"Kevin - I think I groped her."

"Groped her? How?"

"I was the next-worst thing to unconscious, and I just reflexively grabbed..." I demonstrated groping, at chest height.

"Oh," he said, then, "Oh. You groped her..." he made gestures.

I put my head in my hands and nodded.

"Well, it's not like they're easy to miss."

I shot him the stink eye.

"Well, they're not."

He did have a point.

She, of course, had screamed like a banshee. A banshee with a lifelong horror of spiders who's just discovered a great, big hairy arachnid in her stockings. Which she's wearing.

Telepathy or not, juiced-up or not, in that situation I wasn't putting out much in the way of thoughts (and my don't-notice-me powers were probably covering what little I had), so it must have seemed like being groped by the Invisible Man. She was nervous already, and let's be honest - a girl who looked like Karen and could read automatic thoughts was going to be pretty wary, just by the nature of things. I didn't blame her for screaming and fleeing. I did wonder, though, how I was ever going to explain it - or even get her attention to explain it, since with my powers this strong I could probably walk down a crowded street naked, painted six day-glo colours and playing a tuba without anyone noticing me.

And I play the tuba really badly.

"So," Kevin asked after a minute. "Uh, what was it... like?"

"What was...?" I started to ask, then I got it. "Hey, man, I was mostly unconscious through the whole thing. I don't even really remember."

"Yeah, you do."

I retrieved the memory as best I could, frowning intensely.

"Soft," I said finally. "Very soft."

He looked at me enviously.

"Hey, at least you've got the chance of experiencing it deliberately someday. That memory's going to have to last me for a long time."

He opened his mouth, then thought better of whatever we was going to say and closed it again.

"She's never going to speak to me again."

Kevin is outstanding sometimes. He didn't point out that she'd not spoken three sentences to me so far.

"Man, I feel terrible."

"You look terrible. Actually, you don't smell that great, either. Shower?"

"Might as well. At least it will put off having to face Karen."

When we'd showered, shaved and dressed, we wandered downstairs for lack of anything better to do. Jane was watching a machine with the single-minded concentration of a cat at a mousehole.

"What's that?" asked Kevin, speaking to Marie. She and Karen were sitting at a table, watching the machine rather more casually.

"Jane says it's a fab."

"A fab what?"

"A fabricator," Jane said without looking away from it. "A machine that makes other machines."

"What's it making?" he asked, as a complex assembly extruded from the gap at the front.

"Another fab, to start with. After that..." She trailed off and adjusted a dial by a minute amount.

We waited, but she wasn't going to finish the sentence. Kevin and I sat down at the table with the other two girls. I couldn't even look in Karen's direction.

An hour is a long time to be excruciated. Trust me in this. That's how long it took for Jane to set up and assemble the second fab (she got Marie to open some valves leading into it from nowhere), and make them jointly produce the components of a device which was about the size of a very large belt buckle when assembled.

"All right," she said. "John."


"You. Clip this on your belt."

It had a dial at the top, numbered from 1 to 10.

"Turn it down," she instructed.

It was like - have you ever done a photography class, and you're in the darkroom with the red light, and sloshing the print around in the developer, and the image gradually emerges on what looked like a blank piece of paper? That's what it was like, except I was the paper. I could tell by Marie's reaction that she could see me properly now (I still wasn't looking at Karen).

"Now back up again," she said. Marie's eyes gradually went vague and confused, and she peered around as if she'd lost something but couldn't remember what. They cleared as I dialed it back to 1.

"Perfect," said Jane. "We'll have five of those."

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The Y People, Chapter 11: Project Bootstrap

There was another awkward silence for a while, then Kevin said, "We better take some of this down to Jane. She's not going to remember to eat."

Marie visibly swallowed a comment, but she did pick up a pizza box and tramp down the stairs after us. I carried the juice.

Jane had the machine disassembled and neatly spread out on a bench, almost like an exploded diagram or one of those "some assembly required" charts. She was pointing her laptop at it. The laptop flashed.

"What are you doing?" asked Kevin.

"Three-D scan," she said. She put the laptop down on another bench and fiddled with it, and a projected holographic image of the parts, several times life-size, appeared in the air above the laptop. She started moving the projected parts around by grabbing them with her hands.

I knew it wouldn't do any good to question how the laptop could do that. In her mind, that was what a laptop should do. I'd never seen her charge the battery, come to that. She didn't even seem to have a power cord. The power here was a different voltage anyway, I suspected, and had different plugs, but that just didn't seem to be a consideration.

"We brought you pizza," Kevin said, approaching with a box.

"Oh," she replied, and picked up a slice. She took an absent-minded bite, then put it down and continued to fiddle with the projection. I got the impression that first bite was also going to be her last.

We put the pizza boxes and juice bottles down on an unused workbench and stood around watching for a little while as Jane reassembled an image of the machine in midair. Abruptly, Karen burst out, "I could really do with a shower."

We looked at her. She was right.

Marie took two steps to the nearest door and opened it without really looking, still distracted by Jane's projection. I poked my head in curiously.

"Hey, this is a Japanese bath-house," I said.

"You over-delivered," said Kevin. We walked in and looked around. It was all wooden slats and minimalism. There were two separate bathing areas, presumably for men and women.

Karen appeared hesitantly at the door. "I've read about these," she said. "You wash yourself down first and then soak, right?"

"Right," I said. I know my manga. "Which side do you want?"

Kevin had to repeat it before she heard, but she chose the left. She dragged Marie away from the light show and they vanished through the door.

Kevin and I went through our door and stripped off, washed and then climbed into the square wooden bath.

"Pretty nice," I said. "MIBs do good work."

"They do," he agreed.

We heard giggling from next door, and I tried hard not to think about Karen taking her clothes off. I recited some nonsense poetry in my head. It helped a little, but not much.

We sat and soaked for a while. We could hear the girls talking, though we couldn't pick up most of what they were saying, and we started chatting too. We'd just fallen silent for a moment when I heard Karen's Australian voice quite clearly through the wall.

"Who's Kevin talking to in there?"

"The other guy, uh..." Marie had forgotten my name again, but unlike Karen had at least remembered my existence.

I was just preparing a fulminating curse when Kevin gave a start.

"What?" I asked.

"Powers are off," he said.

"What the...?" I heard Karen exclaim. "My head just went quiet. It's like that... place."

"Jane!" Marie bellowed.

"Don't worry," Jane shouted back, "I just turned the machine back on."

"OK," called Marie. "You want a Japanese bath?"

"Why not?" Jane called back.

"Bring the pizza and the juice," Karen suggested.

"What pizza - oh." She'd forgotten it was there. It was me pizza.

A few moments later, I heard Jane walk in and stop in front of the two doors.

"Left-hand door," I called out, and she heard me without Kevin's help. I heard the other door open and the two other girls explain the wash-before-you-soak thing.

"What if we get attacked?" Karen asked nervously. "I mean, we're all in here with no powers. And, uh, no clothes." I started reciting nonsense poetry again until I realised that I didn't have to - she couldn't read my thoughts now.

"I've got a remote kill-switch right here. I'll rig it up to some motion detectors while we sleep."

"You're going to run the machine while we sleep?"

"I call it Operation Bootstrap. Tomorrow morning we should all have built up a power backlog, and I can use that to do the next step. It's going to be brilliant."

"What are you going to do?" asked Karen.

"If I knew that now," said Jane, "I wouldn't need to turn on the machine."

Jane sounded happy, even almost friendly. She was even explaining in terms we could all understand. Maybe the bath was relaxing her, or maybe it was just that her project was underway.

After a while in which nobody talked, there was the sound of someone who was too hot hauling herself out of the water to sit on the side.

"My goodness, Jane," said Marie, "watch yourself, you'll cut your fingers on those hip-bones. Have some pizza."

Even relaxed, Marie could be a bit of a bitch.

We soaked ourselves prunelike, then dried off - there were some towels - dressed, and went upstairs to our improvised beds. Hot soaks are really relaxing. Despite the drawbacks of the air mattress, I slept like a rock.

When I woke up, it was because Karen had just landed on top of me.

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The Y People, Chapter 10: Take Me To Our Leader

It turned out that when Jane said "Help me carry...", what that meant was that we carried and she opened the doors, in a distracted kind of not-very-helpful way. We got the machine set up on a bench downstairs, and stood there massaging our hands while she produced a screwdriver from somewhere and started to remove the case.

Once she could see inside, she seemed totally absorbed - it was like Kevin had suddenly gained my power as well. He jerked his head towards the door and we started to leave. But, without looking up, she called, "I'll need some electronic components eventually. Get Marie to come down and open a door."

"Is she autistic, or what?" Kevin asked as we clumped up the stairs.

"At least Asperger's," I said. We knew a few kids who were one or the other, and Sister Mary Anselm had given us a lecture one time.

"It's like everyone has your power in her world," he said.

"Yeah, I was just thinking that. Up until she needs something, anyway."

"Maybe she's just really, really self-centred."

"Yeah. Where are Karen and Marie?"

"Well, according to my sense they're on what feels like the other side of the city, that way." He pointed at an angle in the approximate direction of the warehouse part of the building. "So your guess is as good as mine."

We soon found them, though, through the only door that was ajar. They were in some windowless room eating pizza and drinking fruit juice. Karen looked a little more composed, but her eyes were still red.

"No Coke?" asked Kevin. He loves Coke.

"Only juice," said Marie.

"MIBs are health nuts," I said.

"Men In Black?" He cast me a raised eyebrow.

"Mysterious Invisible Benefactors. But yes, reference intentional."


Kevin and I have known each other for a long time, so we can usually work out what the other one is thinking. Since nobody pays much attention to our conversations, what with the John effect, we don't usually worry too much about including others, either. We have a lot of in-jokes.

"Oh, by the way, Jane wants a door opened," he told Marie as he sat down and helped himself to pizza.

"Jane can wait," said Marie.

"Are you the leader?" Karen said suddenly, to Kevin.

"What? No. We don't - there is no leader."

"But back in the, the place..."

"I always know where everyone and everything is," he said. "So in a situation like that, I had knowledge that everyone else needed. Situational awareness. You've told her about our powers?" he asked Marie.

"Yes, I was just about to ask her about hers."

"You should be the leader," Karen told Kevin, overlapping Marie's sentence a bit.

"Why is that?"

"Why do we need a leader?" I asked. "Isn't it a bit 18th-century to assume that someone has to be in charge?"

Since only Kevin registered that I was talking, he repeated my first question.

"Of course you need a leader," Karen said. "It's dangerous, so someone has to be the one who takes charge when things get hairy. We can't just mill around arguing about what to do."

"Shouldn't we have some sort of election, at least?" said Marie. I could tell she wasn't delighted with the idea of Kevin as leader. Marie was the kind of person who automatically thinks she's the leader. Come to that, so was Jane, but she had no people skills - or, actually, a negative amount of people skills. A large negative amount. Karen clearly wasn't a candidate, and nor was I - no good having a leader who nobody notices.

"Well, I vote for Kevin," I said as loudly as I could, stepping forward. "Assuming he votes for himself, that with Karen's vote makes three, so he has a majority."

"Hold on, hold on," said Kevin. "We should have this discussion with Jane here."

"Good luck pulling her head out of that machine," I said.

"Look, can we shelve it for now? We're not under attack. We're sitting here eating pizza."

"All right. We'll talk about it later," said Karen.

There was an interval of slightly uncomfortable pizza-eating. Then Marie swallowed and said, "As I was saying - I've just been telling Karen about our powers, and I was about to ask her about hers."

"I bet you forgot to mention me and my power," I thought.

Karen turned and looked straight at me. "Yes, she did. What can you do?" she asked.

I stared at her for what seemed like several seconds. "You're a telepath," I said.

"Not exactly. I can only hear people's automatic thoughts, or the ones with a lot of emotion behind them."

"What do you mean by automatic thoughts?"

"You know the voices in your head? The ones that crazy people think are coming from outside them, but actually are your teachers and parents and stuff, or what you imagine they'd tell you? Those thoughts."

"So let me get this straight. You hear voices in other people's heads?"

"Well - I've never thought of putting it like that, but I suppose, yes?"

"So it was probably just as well that you didn't have your powers in that prison, then," said Marie.

Karen shuddered and went silent, looking inward. Marie's power of opening things extends, unfortunately, to her big mouth, and what's inside is frequently not what people need.

Kevin, on the other hand, knows exactly where people are, and jumped in to distract her. "John's power is that people don't notice him or remember him," he said, "which is why Marie didn't say anything about him. It's, um, kind of a mixed blessing."

"To put it mildly," I muttered, then blushed when Karen shot me a look. I'd just thought, "I'll never have a chance with a girl like Karen." It wasn't a completely unhappy look, which was something, though it wasn't like she was smiling either.

I would really have to watch my thoughts around her, and it wasn't going to be easy.

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Officially on hiatus

Obviously, The Y People has been unofficially on hiatus for a while. But I'm now admitting it.

There are unlikely to be more updates until November because of looming exams. December to February may be a bit patchy depending how demanding my summer semester study is (probably fairly demanding).

After February, though, I'm hoping things will pick up. Bear in mind that The Y People is an amusement for me and I have a lot of other things going on in my life, some of which are harder to justify shelving for an extended period. But I do plan to continue and I do want to continue, so please remain subscribed and normal transmission should (eventually) resume.

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The Y People: A brief intermission

Greetings, Faithful Readers. As you may have guessed, I've been busy with other things lately - university assignment, conference talk, that sort of thing - and haven't updated The Y People as a consequence. I hope to do so soon.

I thought I'd say hi, though, and offer you the opportunity to interact. I'm very happy to receive comments on any post in The Y People - I know some of my fellow Goodreads authors are following, and your questions or critiques are very welcome.

On this post, though, I'm specifically inviting comments which suggest what power Karen might have. I do have an idea, but you might have better ones. We're going to find out in the next chapter, which I'm aiming to do on Sunday (NZ time, Saturday in much of the rest of the world).

I'm writing by the seat of my pants here. I seldom know how a chapter ends when I start typing it. I do know approximately what is going on behind the scenes (which is more than I knew when I started), but you and I are discovering stuff together. Is this experiment sustainable? Stay tuned and see.

And if you have ideas for Karen's power, please leave a comment.

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The Y People, Chapter 9: Ructions

Kevin was tying the sleeves of his coat to the door. He let out a hiss, then said, “The guard’s coming. We’ve got about 30 seconds.”

Jane produced her own lockpick and had their door open in the first of those seconds. The three girls spilled out, Karen unwillingly – Marie had her by the elbow. I think she was still a bit fuzzy from the drugs.

“Kevin, get out here,” said Jane. “Can you lift that machine? I want to take it with us.”

Kevin started over towards the machine, which was the size of a large desktop laser printer. I hefted one end. It seemed possible, though I wouldn’t want to carry it far, and I nodded to Kevin, who said, “Yes.” Nobody except him was looking in my direction. They were all still forgetting I existed.

“Grab it, then, and let’s get going,” said Jane.

“The guard’s nearly here!” he said.

“Then grab fast…” began Jane, but at that moment the guard appeared in the doorway, skidding to a halt – he’d obviously broken into a run and was panting. He checked himself with his shoulder against the door pillar and levelled his rifle at Kevin, who was crossing his line of sight to get to the machine.

I felt a spurt of intense fear that seemed to come out of nowhere.

I didn’t see exactly what happened next. Something came from Marie’s direction and hit the guard, who convulsed and dropped the gun. I had already pushed off from the table, I think with the idea of tackling Kevin out of the way of a bullet or something, and rocked the rickety platform enough that the lantern fell off and smashed on the floor. It was suddenly almost pitch dark, just a bit of dim light coming in from the corridor. I cannoned into Kevin and bounced off, but he grabbed me and kept me from going down.

Over the guard’s moaning, Kevin shouted, “Everyone stay still for a second! OK, I know where you all are. Just let me guide you. Marie, reach out to your left and grab Karen. Jane, Karen’s in front of you. We’re both over here in the middle of the room. I’ll come over your way and then I’ll guide Marie to the door.”

“What about the machine?” wailed Jane. It was as emotional as I’d ever heard her get.

Kevin let go of my arm, took two steps in the darkness which rang on the concrete floor, huffed, and came back. He nudged me. “Take the other end, mate, this is heavy,” he said. I fumbled for it in the dark, got an end, nearly dropped it and then managed to stabilize it. Towed by Kevin, I stumbled across the room, back towards our cell, I had to assume. He took me on a slight detour to avoid the guard, who was still incapacitated, and I heard him kick something – by the sound, likely the gun. It skittered off further into the room.

“All right,” he said, speaking a little breathlessly – the machine was heavier than I had realized. “Marie, take one small step to your left and then a medium step forward.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then, “Marie!” he yelled. “The other guard is coming. Snap out of it, you’ve got to get us out of here.”

“Sorry,” came her voice out of the darkness, and a confused noise of shuffling feet as the three girls, clinging blindly to each other, lurched towards the door. I heard a small squeak from the hinges, and then there was a light. She’d opened a door back to our home base.

Kevin and I hurried as best we could in the wake of the girls, who rushed through the door. Marie stood to one side, holding it, and slammed it behind us just as a portable light came bobbing along the corridor outside our former prison. We half lowered, half dropped the machine, and I shook out my hands, which had been cramping.

“We’re well out of that,” said Kevin.

“What did you do to the guard?” I asked Marie, but she ignored the question until Kevin repeated it. “I found something in my pocket all of a sudden and kind of – fired it at him,” she said. “I… do you think he’ll be OK?” She held out a small yellow-and-black device in one hand.

“As long as he doesn’t have heart problems,” said Jane. “That’s a taser.”

“You tased him?” asked Karen. She reflected for a moment, then added, “Good. He looked at me in a way I didn’t like. Like I was… good to eat or something.” Her eyes turned inward. Marie’s expression went from worried to dangerous. She took a couple of steps towards Karen and put an arm around her, upon which Karen melted down and started sobbing and clutching Marie. Marie led her off gently, opening a door into a room with some couches where they could sit down.

Kevin and I looked at each other awkwardly. Jane had ignored the whole incident and was clucking over the machine like a hen with one chicken.

“I could miniaturize this,” she said. “Small enough to wear.”

“Great,” I said. “I might be able to be visible from time to time.”

She ignored me, but with Jane that didn’t necessarily mean a lot.

“You know,” Kevin said, “I felt a surge when the machine went off. Like my power came back stronger than ever. I knew that other guard was coming, and I’d only glanced at him in passing. I usually need to have at least a conversation with someone before they show up on the radar.”

“Maybe that’s why Marie could pull something out of her pocket without a door,” I said.

“Is that so?” said Jane, still ignoring me. “That’s very interesting. If suppressing the effect temporarily makes it surge up stronger afterwards, that would imply… hmm. Help me carry this downstairs to the lab.”

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The Y People, Chapter 8: No Doors

“Jane, this was a terrible idea,” said Kevin.

“Shut it, kid,” said the large man with the automatic rifle. “Just drop that helmet on the ground and walk slowly and quietly towards the hill.”

Turns out that in the middle of a field, most of our powers weren't actually very useful, tinfoil hats or not. No doors for Marie to open. Kevin didn’t know the guard, so he didn’t sense him coming. No technology for Jane to tinker with. And none of us were bullet-proof.

The hill had a kind of bunker built into it. The entrance was at an angle into the hill and screened behind a couple of trees. From a distance, you’d never spot it.

There wasn’t a door on the entrance, I noticed. Inside the entrance was a kind of security booth with a transparent screen in front of it – bullet-proof glass, I had to assume. No door there, either. To get into the booth you had to go through a full-height turnstile in an alcove on the right-hand end, and it was clearly controlled from inside. There was another guard there, watching a security monitor.

We were ushered down a short, doorless, concrete-lined tunnel into an old-style prison area with metal bars across the otherwise open fronts of three cells. Two were empty, but the middle one held a rather pretty but very rumpled girl with black hair and long eyelashes. In contrast to skinny Jane and tiny Marie, she was noticeably girl-shaped.

On a rickety table sat a device of some kind, which buzzed gently. An outdoor extension cable, the kind that builders use, led from it off up the tunnel, back towards the guard station, and a workshop lantern plugged into the same power supply gave a harsh light. A security camera with a red light showing was fixed to the wall above the table, and its cable also led back to the guard station.

The guard gestured Kevin into the left-hand cell. I followed, and he locked us in. He unlocked the middle cell and put Jane and Marie in there with the other girl. The cells had concrete walls between them, so we could no longer see each other, but we would be able to talk.

Kevin was clutching his head and looking haunted and disoriented. I guessed that the buzzing thing was the power damper.

The guard checked the doors again, and left.

The girls immediately began talking. It quickly emerged that the pretty girl was Karen, and that she had been here for a day or two, she thought. Mr Brown had shown up at her school in Sydney and abducted and drugged her, and the light stayed on all the time, so she was a bit hazy on exact times. My guess was that he had headed on to Sydney when he failed to pick us up in Auckland.

“He was so weird?,” she said, in a pinched Australian accent. “Not like a real person somehow?” She had the habit which some girls have of making statements sound like questions by lifting the pitch of her voice at the end of her sentences. “And I thought he was going to kill me, or, you know… hurt me? But he just brought me here.”

“Do you know where this is?” asked Jane.

There was a pause, and I imagined Karen staring at Jane, flummoxed. “How did you get here?” she asked.

“We came – a different way. We didn’t see where it was.”

“The guard sounded like he was from the US,” Kevin said. “The South, I think, but I only know American accents from TV.”

“That’s Kevin,” said Jane. “He's from your part of the world. New Zealand.”

Kevin let that pass – we New Zealanders hate to be lumped in with Australians – and asked, “Do the guards come round, or do they just watch the monitor?”

“They feed me now and then,” she said. “Did that Mr Brown guy get you too?”

“Uh, no,” said Jane. “Actually, we were coming here to rescue you.”

“You knew I was here?”

“We were pretty sure someone was here – one of… our kind of people.”

“You mean you can…”

Jane hushed her. “Don’t let’s talk about it where the guards can hear. I don’t know if our enemies know exactly what we can do, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

While they were talking, I fumbled one of Jane’s devices out of my belt. She’d made the belt, too. It was a belt for hiding things. The guard, being shorthanded, hadn’t searched us, but if he had, we were prepared.

“There aren’t any proper doors here,” said Marie, apparently irrelevantly unless you knew. “Glass doors and anywhere I can see the other side – it doesn’t work.”

“Kevin, will you take your coat off? You’re the biggest,” Jane said, no doubt equally mysteriously to anyone who was listening, including me in this case.

We normally would have locked gazes at this point and shared our puzzlement, but he looked around the cell somewhat vaguely. His eyes slid past me - the tinfoil hat was still working, which I'd guessed from the fact that the guard hadn't made me take it off. He began to take off the long coat he was wearing. I walked over to the door.

“The Centre will want to know about this place,” Jane pattered on. “Marie, do you think they’ve been set up long, or only since the Incident?”

While the guards were, hopefully, focussing on her and the now intentionally nonsensical information she was “leaking”, I eased the device into the lock and gently clicked it open. I read a lot of the kind of books where picking locks is a thing, so I know how lockpicks work, though not how to actually use them. You have several different little tools, and you have to fiddle with them for a while to get the lock open. This was a Jane lockpick, though. It worked the way she thought it should work: you stuck it in the lock and turned.

The cell was fairly new, and the lock moved easily. I swung the door slowly open and slipped through, quietly pushing it to behind me. I wasn't sure how good the don't-notice-me power was, tinfoil hat or not.

There wasn't much space between the cell door and the table, which is why I hadn't just stayed outside the cell - I was afraid the guard would bump into me.

“Kevin,” said Jane, “how’s that coat? You want to hang it across the door of your cell?”

Clever Jane. If Marie’s power only worked when she couldn’t see the other side of the door, the answer was to set it up so that she couldn’t.

I strolled casually and, I hoped, unseen across the short distance to the humming box and pulled the cable.

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The Y People, Chapter 7: Nothing in the Middle of Nowhere

Jane wasn't making an empty boast about her skill, I discovered. On the outside, the van looked extremely ordinary (and the dust of the unsealed road was no doubt progressively adding to that impression), but it practically drove itself. On this country road, it should have been like driving a hippopotamus on roller skates, but it flowed smoothly and easily around the curves, clinging to the road like a scared kid to his teddy bear.

Even when Kevin shrieked in my ear and I jerked the wheel, it gently ignored me and carried on around the curve we were on, sliding smoothly to a stop on the next straight as I switched brake for accelerator.

"What is it?" I asked, worried.

"It's OK, it's back now."

"What? What's back?"

"Everything. Everyone. I - my power switched off for a few moments as we came around that curve, and it startled me. Sorry, but it's like being struck suddenly blind."

"Interesting," said Jane from the back. "Back up a bit, can you? I want to see if it happens again."

I looked at Kevin for permission, and he nodded.

The van went just as smoothly backwards as forwards. "That's it," said Kevin, partway round the curve. "It's like you've just vanished. I mean, I can still see you," he said to me, "but I can't... locate you."

"You can still see him?" asked Jane. "What about you, Marie? Can you see John?"

She looked directly at me for the first time. "Sure," she said, "I can see him. So that's what you look like. Hmm." She sounded unimpressed. Even if you can see me, I'm still... nondescript.

"And - can you open the door?" asked Jane.

Marie gave her a look, then opened the door which led to the back of the van. It led to the back of the van.

"Power damper," said Jane. "OK, pull forward to where you were before, John."

I did, and we re-tested. Kevin could locate me, Marie couldn't focus on me, and the door she opened was to a cupboard containing old electronic components.

"Aha," said Jane. "Hey, did the van perform any differently in the dampened zone?"

"No, it was just the same," I said.

"So either it doesn't affect my power, or once I've built something it keeps working even inside the dampened zone. Let's see which one."

She pulled out some electronic components and fussed with them, then had me drive back into the "zone" and fussed with some others. She linked them all to her laptop.

"Mm-hm. Mm-hm," she said. "Drive forward." Her attention was riveted to the screen.

She had me drive back and forward several times, then announced, "All right then. My power is dampened by the zone as well, but once I've made something work right outside the zone it keeps working right inside the zone. That's going to be useful. All right, Google Maps."

She pressed keys.

"Now, drive on and take the second left."

I was used to obeying women with an air of authority. I drove on and took the second left.

"Kevin," said Jane, "yell out when you blank out. I want a cross-check with my instruments."

After a minute or two, he said, "Now."

"Mm-hm. Mm-hm. And ending..."


"Yes. All right, the instruments work. Now, let's see..." she tapped and clicked. "Assuming it's circular, which seems reasonable, the centre of the field is right... here." She leaned forward and showed us the screen, which had the points of contact, a big circle crossing them, and the centre point on the circle marked on a map.

"I didn't know Google Maps could do that," I said.

"It can on my laptop. There's nothing showing there, just a big hill. Interesting. All right, I think we should go home now. I'm getting tired, it's been a long day from my perspective. In the morning we can strategize some more. Pull in... up there, and we'll use the door to get back to the old factory." She stabbed at a turnout marked on the map.

"The doors don't always go where you expect them to," said Marie.

"OK, but I definitely need to sleep, so let's have a door to somewhere we can sleep," Jane replied.

I pulled into the turnout and Marie opened the door. As it happened, it led to the factory.

Jane was up before us the next morning, and her laptop was full of blueprints by the time we stirred. She tried to explain them over breakfast, but lost us quickly.

"Bottom line," said Marie impatiently. "What do these do?"

"These ones shield us against the effect. I think."

"You think?"

"Well, I won't know until we've gone back and tested, will I? If I could get a good look at the field generator it would be a lot easier. I have to work with what I've got, though."

"Tinfoil hats?" said Kevin incredulously. "You're seriously going to make us tinfoil hats?"

"Tinfoil hats that work", she said. "This is the key point to remember."

"Tinfoil hats that you think will work."

"Look, first we build the hats. Then we build the other gear. Then we go back through the door to the van, drive into the region and test it. If it works..."

"Yes, if it works, then what?"

"Then we go scouting and find out more about that hill. That's got to be where Mr Brown is holding our theoretical colleagues. I mean, why would you have a power nullifier if you weren't holding people with powers?"

"And if it doesn't work?"

"Then we work on it some more until it does. Unless you have a better idea?"

Nobody had a better idea, so we did that.

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The Y People, Chapter 6: Why Might We Need a Van?

"Well, speaking for myself," said Marie, "I'm going to start by having a shower. You can suit yourselves, of course, but it's going to be a lot fresher around here if you do the same."

Jane looked confused. "It's the middle of the afternoon," she said.

"Not here," I said. "We're somewhere in North America."

"We think," said Kevin.

"We've just had breakfast," added Marie.

She opened some doors, and there were showers. Meanwhile, Jane went off exploring.

When we emerged, clean, she was excited, in a British sort of way.

"Come and see what I found," she said, and led us to a stairwell.

We pounded down - it reminded me of the stairwells at school between classes, only noisier, because the treads were metal - into the big workshop that ran under the office area. Jane practically ran to a big object shrouded with canvas and began to pull it back. "Help me," she said, and together we revealed it.

It was a van. Or rather, it was to a van what an extremely battered corpse is to a person. It had no wheels and was up on blocks, the motor was missing, and so were the seats. The controls were primitive, worn and dinged.

"It's a beaten-up old van carcass," said Marie, who hadn't helped pull the canvas off. "So what?"

"I can fix it," said Jane. "And when I say fix, I mean, I can make it... better than it ever was."

"What do we need a car for?" said Marie. "I can open a door to anywhere."

"You can open a door to anywhere with a door," said Jane. "What if we need to go somewhere out in the open?"

"We don't have licenses," Marie said. "At least, I don't."

"We do," I said. We had a programme at the school - we all learned to drive, though we didn't get much practice. Kevin and I had been going to buy an old car, maybe, and tour around, camping.

"Good," said Jane. "But nobody is going to check them anyway, because you'll be driving, so nobody will notice our entirely boring-looking but actually rather good van."

"I still don't see why we need one," said Marie.

"But that's the thing," said Kevin. "You always open doors to things we need, don't you?"

"...Yes," said Marie, cautiously.

"So, if there's a van here, we need a van. And we definitely need you, because you can open..." he cast about... "this toolchest here, or that storage cupboard, and instead of a mass of rust and spiderwebs there will be good tools and new parts, right?"

I've watched Kevin do this before. He's aware of people, and not just where they are in a physical sense. He'd spotted - which Jane and I hadn't - that Marie was resenting Jane and needed to feel necessary.

Hesitantly, Marie reached out and opened the drawer of the toolchest.

Power-driven screwdrivers and a ratchet set gleamed up at us.

The cupboard proved to hold new wheels, still in their wrappings, which fit the van. Also, a large hydraulic jack.

"OK," said Marie, "I guess we need a van."

Jane had us do particular things to help her - she did most of the work, but aside from lugging an inexhaustible flow of parts from the magic cupboard, Kevin and I also got to work with her on sections of the car. She had Kevin work on the steering and the wheels, and I got to paint the chassis - plain, dull white. "Nobody notices a white van," she said. "And I'm hoping that your talents will rub off. The van should always know where it is, and it will be completely unremarkable."

I let that one go without remark.

The work went quickly. Under Jane's hands, tools did exactly what they should. Even with a lunch break (Marie opened the cupboard and found lunch instead of more parts), by the late afternoon I was spraying paint onto what appeared to be a complete, driveable van. Jane put her hands over mine, and the paint just floated to where it belonged.

The steering wheel was on the left, confirming that we were in North America. I mentioned my trepidation at driving on the opposite side of the road.

"Don't worry," said Jane. "This van won't let you drift into the wrong lane. When I make a thing, I make it to do what it should do."

She sounded so confident, I didn't argue.

We broke for dinner while the paint dried. Jane had mixed it, so it didn't need to dry overnight or be baked in a kiln we didn't have.

After the meal we hurried downstairs again to look at our new vehicle.

From the outside it looked totally unimpressive. Somehow, the dust from the workshop had drifted over it, so it didn't look new or freshly-painted. The wheels didn't even look new any more. The windows were a little dingy, with an effect like tinted windows without being actually tinted in any attention-getting way - you couldn't really see inside, but it was completely unsuspicious-looking. But when we got inside and looked out, they were clear as diamonds.

The seats looked ordinary, but they adjusted to fit us in total comfort. The controls were in exactly the right places for me. It was all a bit spooky.

We had test-run the motor, so I knew it went, but I had a moment of anticipation as I reached out and turned the key. It started perfectly, smooth and even, no little hitches or rumbles to draw any attention to us at all. It was a stealth van in the same way as I'm a stealth person: it looked so ordinary on the outside that nobody was ever going to pay attention to it or remember it. Yet inside, it was completely comfortable. (OK, there's where the metaphor breaks down.)

We had fixed a second set of seats in behind the front ones, and then a partition with a door. The idea was that the girls would sit in the back, and Marie would open the door if we needed anything, presumably up to and including a place to sleep - there wasn't room between the second set of seats and the back of the van for a bed, let alone four of them and a bathroom and kitchen, but that wouldn't be a problem for Marie.

Marie also had custody of the garage door opener which had been one of the last things to come out of the cupboard. She pressed it ceremoniously, and, as we had expected, the doors of the warehouse started rising. Jane had done something to the motors which apparently meant that the lack of electricity and the fact they'd been rusting for probably 20 years no longer mattered.

The fuel gauge showed full. Jane had assured me that it would continue to do so.

We pulled out from the warehouse, lit through high windows with the glow of a city, into the dusk of a country road. In the rearview mirror, someone's barn receded.

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