The design of the New Bridge to Lyndesfarne had been a tremendous undertaking, and Kevin's personal involvement had been considerable. The professional pressures had only been made worse by the disruption caused by the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to prevent the conclusion of the project.
As the New Bridge moved to completion, Kevin had taken the opportunity to shift in a direction which he imagined would be rather less pressured. He became a consultant - a rather unique one, in fact, with both a sophisticated knowledge of engineering and organisational principles in his own world, together with an increasing understanding of the magic of Lyndesfarne.
The first really major piece of work he was commissioned to undertake was the review of the transportation of goods between the two worlds. Part of his initial research was a 'high-level feasibility study', in the consultant's jargon he found it all too easy to adopt, leading to the production of a solution definition report.
The difference between actually making real stuff deliver on time and the consultants role of 'solution definition', Kevin had concluded, was less about shovelling the shit after it had hit the fan, and much more about shaping the manure into convenient piles, so that they could be thrown at the rotating machinery by the project management.
Kevin's research had led him to arrange a visit to the goods handling facilities which stood a short distance from the end of the causeway leading to the Old Bridge. He stood at the gates of the trans-shipment area, looking through the high wire fences, through which could just be seen a large and modern warehouse building.
The building itself was hardly visible except from this point, although the construction of the warehouse was familiar to him. The technique of metal and block-work cladding over a framework of steel I-beams was a cheap way of providing a large undercover space, provided that the external appearance and the comfort of people housed within was not of great concern.
On this trip, Kevin had been guided by Doctor Willis from NISSA. The Good Doctor's carefully cultivated "Mad Professor" look had not been attenuated since the two men's previous meeting. On this occasion, Willis had removed his stained white lab coat, which was replaced by a very slightly frayed tweed jacket with, Kevin was amused to note, the mandatory leather patches at the elbows.
The two men had been transported from Newcastle University in a chauffeur-driven car which, he would discover much later, had been supplied by RTDE. During the road trip, the Doctor had maintained his taciturn reserve, alternately staring out of the window, or making cryptic notes in neat and tiny handwriting in a little notebook he kept in his inside pocket.
For some reason, the driver had pulled up outside the fence, rather than continuing to the gate itself. This did not seem to surprise Doctor Willis, who calmly waited for the doors to be opened by the chauffeur.
"We've arrived," the Doctor said unnecessarily, as Kevin inelegantly exited the vehicle.
As he watched, a large articulated truck drew up outside the gates. The boxy bodywork was supported by six axles, indicating that this was an example of the largest class of Heavy Goods Vehicle normally allowed on British roads. It was a thirty-eight tonne (gross weight) lorry of the kind that he had encountered frequently, usually on the bends of the road from the Lyndesfarne crossing to the Great North Road.
The truck barely paused at the gates. Someone in the nondescript workaday clothes that Kevin now recognised as the uniform of the Guardians appeared, swiftly opened the gate and beckoned the driver through before closing the gate as swiftly afterwards.
The two men made their way on foot the short distance to the gatehouse which stood to one side of the gates though which the lorry had just entered. The gatehouse was not easily seen from the road, being tucked away behind thickly-grown but well-trimmed hedges.
Willis directed Kevin to the pedestrian's entrance, guiding him inside before speaking briefly and more-or-less inaudibly to the Guardian on duty. There was a short exchange of nods, then Willis was allowed to escort Kevin to the main building. Behind him, Kevin caught sight of the Guardian picking up a telephone.
Inside, the warehouse was in a state of carefully orchestrated chaos. Kevin was shown around by the rather stressed and overweight warehouse manager with loosed tie and rather obvious damp patches at the armpits, introduced only as Dave.
The manager seemed happy enough to chat and answer all of Kevin's questions, to the point where he began to wonder why Doctor Willis had accompanied him at all.
Dave rapidly put a structure around the noise and bustle.
"Goods arriving are unloaded at the docks over there," he explained, "We have six fork-lift trucks, and we run a three-shift system so that they are in use almost around the clock."
He indicated an area filled with steel racking allowing crates and pallets to be stacked to the rafters separated by long rows of fluorescent lighting whose light reflected from the bald patches on Dave's skull. From the HGVs, with their trailers backed up to the open doors, the pallets were being unloaded efficiently, supported by the skilful operation of the fork-lift trucks.
"How long before the goods are shipped over to Lyndesfarne?" Kevin asked.
Dave the manager rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin thoughtfully.
"Well, it depends," he said after a few moments, "But usually it's gone inside a day - two days tops. Now, take a look over here."
Trailed by Doctor Willis, Kevin followed Dave towards the far wall of the warehouse.
"Down this end," the warehouse manager continued, "We load and unload the wagons for transportation to the Other World."
Kevin watched conventional motorised fork lift trucks placing or removing wooden pallets from anachronistic wooden carts and wagons, each drawn by teams of two horses. The loaded goods were held in place with sheets of oiled canvas and hemp ropes, which would survive the anti-technology magic of the barrier between the Two Worlds, rather than the tough plastic sheeting and nylon ropes that Kevin would have expected in the twenty-first century.
Even so, evidence of modern methods of handling was everywhere. Kevin noticed the slots and openings in the wagons which allowed the tines of the fork lift trucks to load and unload whole crates and pallets quickly.
The horses themselves were entirely unmoved by the roar of the engines and stood placidly, clearly quite familiar with the machines, and the loading and unloading work going on behind them. The wagoners stood by their team, chattering intermittently with the fork lift operators in between providing their animals with nosebags or rubbing down their flanks.
Kevin thought he could now spot the subtle facial features typical of those from the other world, and the wagoners appeared to be an eclectic mix of individuals from both sides of the straights.
Dave pointed out the separate entrance and exit from the compound provided for the horse-drawn wagons. From this vantage-point, Kevin could see a narrow paved road which led behind the "Tourist Information Office" that doubled as the Guardians' guard house, and screened from the car park by a thick growth of thorny trees. The wagons could make their way to the causeway and thence to the Other World almost unobserved by other travellers.
Kevin was briefly tempted to follow one of the departing wagons, just to watch them segue into the other traffic on the crossing. However, the enthusiasm of the manager, not to mention a briefly-glanced frown of disapproval from Doctor Willis, rapidly discouraged him. Instead, he turned about, and followed the other two men back into the cavernous building.
"Down this side," Dave pontificated, wandering on ahead, "We store the goods arriving from Lyndesfarne."
He indicated a second row of steel racking seemingly identical to the one Kevin had inspected earlier, although adorned by a different collection of boxes and containers. Any of them would not have looked out of place anywhere in his world, Kevin mused, as he gazed up at the array of goods.
He was abruptly dragged from his reverie by a horn sounding closely behind him. Both Dave and Doctor Willis neatly stepped out of the way of a fork lift truck, practically dragging Kevin with them, while the operator again beeped cheerily and waved at the visitors.
It was, Kevin concluded, a fairly simple system. Goods arrived by HGV, then unloaded and stored for a day or so, and finally shipped onwards by horse-drawn wagon. In the other direction, the wagons were unloaded, the crates stored for a similarly short period, then the pallets are loaded onto trucks.
All of this was quite a contrast to the approach he discovered when he later visited the corresponding facility on the other side of the crossing. To Kevin's trained eyes, even the construction of the Lyndesfarne transit warehouse was entirely different.
The building was set directly onto the road, not far from the end of the causeway and right next to the portal building that Kevin had already used on trips to the Other World when guided by Tanji. On this trip, too, he was guided by Tanji, who had used her own contacts in the Guild of Directions to gain an introduction.
Inside, the Lyndesfarne transfer point was an astonishingly small space, when compared with the building on the other side. It was enclosed in traditionally-built thick stone walls supporting heavy wooden rafters, in some places held up by internal walls nearly as thick as the exterior ones. The roof itself was simply a layer of thick slate or some similar stone tiles, laid over a stout timber framework held aloft by the rafters.
As they arrived, two people emerged from an interior doorway on the other side of the building. The first was a tiny, almost bird-like woman whose hands were in constant movement as she chattered in a steady stream. As she spoke, she repeatedly bobbed up and down on the balls of her feet, presumably for emphasis, making her waist-length hair braids bounce and jiggle at every movement.
The other was a tall young man with wild dark hair and piercing blue eyes whose every movement appeared to radiate a Zen-like level of calm and equilibrium. The man noticed Kevin and Tanji almost immediately, but waited for ten seconds or more before finding the right moment to draw his companion's attention to the newcomers. The interruption, it seemed to Kevin, consisted of a raised eyebrow, or some comparable non-verbal communication.
As one, the man and woman tuned to face the visitors, raising their hands in the familiar Lyndesfarne salutation. The woman uttered a few words that Kevin was pretty certain he recognised as a greeting before switching to near-flawless English.
"You must be Kevin," she twittered, "You are most welcome. And Tanji, of course. Please do remember me to your Uncle."
Tanji nodded politely and said a few rather formal-sounding words in the Lyndesfarne language.
"I am Lyssa," the woman continued, "And this is my..."
"Colleague?" the man interjected calmly.
"Colleague Vanise. Please let us show you around."
"Pleased to meet you," Kevin responded, "Thank you for allowing me to interrupt your busy schedule."
The tour of the facilities did not take very long, mainly because the building really was not very big. Lyssa chattered away, bouncing this way and that, only stopping when she could not find quite the right word - always supplied without delay by her taciturn companion.
Much to Kevin's surprise, there was clearly almost no storage of goods - even transiently - on the site itself. Instead, all incoming packages were shipped out through the goods portal network almost as soon as they arrived by horse-drawn wagon.
He watched open-mouthed as the goods lifted from the pallets on the wagons - the pallets themselves remaining behind - by evidently under the direct control of a skilled team of handlers. The levitating cargo moved steadily across the floor as if on some kind of insubstantial conveyor belt before disappearing into the portal with no more than a few seconds delay.
Kevin could see the notice above the portal archway, the lettering which even now he was barely able to make out but which he understood indicated the destination of the goods. The sign changed frequently, rippling into a new configuration before almost every consignment passed through.
Even more astonishingly, the converse was also true - goods which arrived through the portal were loaded onto the wagons with a similar lack of delay.
The smooth coordination and control implied a sophisticated logistics operation, the kind of thing that would, in his own world, require careful organisation and the use of a complex computer system.
Kevin wondered how this "just in time" delivery was supported in the world of Lyndesfarne, and managed to interrupt the guide's spiel to ask how the transport of goods was organised. Lyssa and Vanise turned to look at each other in that curiously synchronised way that he had noticed before.
He got the strangest sensation that they were communing, collectively trying - and failing - to come up with some way of explaining the principles in a language not designed for expressing magical ideas.
Eventually, Vanise spoke.
"We use the stones," he said, apparently realising how weak this must have sounded.
"Ah," Kevin said, thoughtfully.
He had been briefed at NISSA a few months before about magical stones which, when held in the hand, allowed to holder to enter a light trance which had long been used for both communication and entertainment. He even understood that sets of these stones could allow several people to enter a common illusion and play together.
It would not be too much of a stretch, he considered, that such a technology would allow for collaborative thinking and planning, and perhaps also be somehow coupled to the operation of the goods portals themselves.
There was another thing puzzling Kevin. He had noticed on both sides of the crossing that the crates and pallets being unloaded usually contained just one kind of goods, as if they had come from a single source. Similarly, in the warehouse in his own world, the HGV trailers were usually loaded with a single kind of goods, ready, he imagined, to be taken to a more conventional logistics or distribution centre.
Sometimes, very occasionally, pallets would be loaded with mixed goods, as if an assortment of merchandise were to be delivered to a single location in the Other World. Why, Kevin wondered, was this? What was the purpose of the special arrangements? Presumably, he concluded tentatively, it was possible to make a special one-off shipment between the Two Worlds.
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