Another facet of Kevin's desire to learn more about Lyndesfarne was his insistence on continued briefings at the Newcastle Institute for Special Sciences and Arts. NISSA was the only organisation he was aware of, in his own world, where advice and guidance on the Other World could be obtained.
Many months before, Kevin had driven on his own the few tens of miles to NISSA from the Lyndesfarne crossing. He had agreed to meet up with Tanji again in the pub he knew as the "Dragon's Nest" later that evening. The Newcastle University campus was as busy as always and once again he had to park the Volvo some distance away before navigating the paths and alleyways to the imposing building that housed the Institute.
The head of NISSA was now the formidable Doctor Linda Braxton. She had replaced the disgraced Professor Alan Wilmington, who had been removed from his post and not seen since, after a scandal that Kevin had helped to uncover a few months previously.
The same efficient administrative assistant, whose name was declared as Sanjit by a newly-installed nameplate on her desk, looked up when Kevin entered the outer office.
"Hello again," she smiled, "The Professor is expecting you."
Kevin soon discovered from reading the sign on the office door that he should now be saying Professor Braxton. Presumably, he mused, promotion to the Head of Department position had a Chair associated with it.
Just at that moment, the inner door opened and a rather serious-looking young man backed out. It seemed to Kevin that the Professor had just completed an interview of some kind. The young man thanked the as-yet invisible occupant profusely, nodded politely to Kevin and Sanjit, then rapidly left the outer office looking both relieved and elated.
Kevin knocked politely on the polished oak door and stuck his head around the opening. Professor Braxton now occupied the office he had previously thought of as Professor Alan's. A very different collection of books and periodicals adorned the shelves. There were numerous bound volumes of journals, most dating back a great many years, and carefully arranged in a manner that suggested a dusty and old-fashioned library.
In line with the Braxton's famously no-nonsense approach, someone had replaced the comfortable leather seats of the Wilmington era with a set of hard plastic stacking chairs. An ergonomically upright office chair on castors was now situated behind the imposing desk - which was unchanged - replacing the rather plush leather item which had been Alan's. There was no computer anywhere in the room, and just a single telephone on one corner of the desk. It seems that the new Professor, Kevin mused, likes to do things the old-fashioned way.
As he entered, Linda Braxton stood and held out her hand over the desk for a brief handshake. Then, following her wave, Kevin sat himself in another of the plastic chairs currently placed on the other side of the desk. It seemed that this briefing was to be given by the formidable Professor herself, rather than delegated to any of the other staff, several of whom Kevin had encountered on his previous visits.
It turned out that this particular tutorial was on the nature of the barrier between the two worlds. Kevin had not specifically requested the topic, but had already learned from experience that the experts often had a good idea of what he should be told about, what he was capable of understanding - or at least held strong opinions on the matter.
"I believe you already know that the barrier" - the Professor emphasised the word as she spoke - "is an artificial construction?"
Kevin nodded. He had already understood something to this effect from conversations with Bret a few months ago. The Professor continued by reminding him that the barrier was in general only effective against man-made items, of both technological and magical origins, and did not interfere with biological processes. In other words, anything living - plant or animal - can pass through the barrier unaffected. Kevin was curious as to why this should be so, and interrupted the Professor to ask the question.
"Well, basically, it's by design," she responded promptly.
Professor Braxton went on to explain that the processes of life, and the hugely complex interdependencies between different elements meant that it was thought to be too dangerous to try and police living things with magic. Apparently, wood, leather, cotton and other once-living materials also tended to be unaffected.
"In all honesty," she concluded, "Nobody wants to risk a dead body on the causeway - either human or animal - simply because of a malfunction of the protective magic of the barrier."
"So what prevents animals not native to one world from escaping into the other?" Kevin asked.
"Well, it can happen," the Professor admitted, "Certainly, most large animal species are identical in both worlds, ditto plants and insects. This may not have been true at one time, but several thousand years of the existence of crossings in many parts of both worlds have made it so."
The Professor paused, perhaps pondering what to say next.
"Even so, there are some major species - genera, even," she eventually continued, "Which exist in only one of the Two Worlds."
"Like Dolphins?" Kevin interjected, "Or Dragons?"
Professor Braxton smiled.
"Exactly so," she replied, "For some reason, these animals never made it between the worlds or, at least, in sufficient numbers to establish breeding colonies. Perhaps they did not find the local environment conducive, or maybe the native fauna out-competed them."
Kevin nodded slowly.
"Anyway, the current edict is to preserve the status quo," the Professor continued, "And the principal risk is perceived to be deliberate smuggling of animals, or their eggs. It is the job of the Guardians to discourage that, of course."
"Like the case of the Loch Ness Monster?" Kevin asked.
The Professor looked at him askance for a moment.
"Well, yes," she relied, "I take it you've heard that story then?"
Kevin nodded again.
"In any case, we don't have a huge problem these days," she continued, "The seawater around the crossing is too cold for most of the smaller species of plesiosaurs and there appears to be insufficient food in the sea for the larger variants who might tolerate the temperature."
"But what about Dragons?" Kevin demanded, "Or Nightwings?"
The Professor again smiled briefly, perhaps amused at Kevin's naivety.
"Well, in the old days," she explained, "Keeping the Dragons away from the crossing was enforced by the dragon hunters affiliated to the Guardians, or at least employed by them. In those days, the dragons were regarded as dangerous pests and hunted extensively."
"Besides," she went on, "Now that large dragons are much rarer and are, as I think you already know, an endangered species, they are all kept in reserves far from habitation."
"So I understand," Kevin replied, "But what about the smaller species, Nightwings and so on?" "Ah, yes," Braxton replied, "These flying reptiles disliked water - as do Dragons, for that matter - and the sea around the crossing is sufficient to prevent them from entering our world."
The Professor sat back in her chair.
"Anyway, the barrier is not principally concerned with managing the passage of wild animals," she said, "It is really there to prevent magical items from the Other World from crossing into this world."
Again, Kevin already knew this. He also knew that the barrier was occasionally imperfect. Not so long ago, he himself had accidentally imported a paperweight he had bought from a shop near the crossing, which turned out to contain sprites for illumination and a limited form of predicting the future. Somehow its magic had not been disabled by the action of the barrier. This had engendered all sorts of unexpected ramifications, but had also drawn Tanji and himself much closer together - a very fair trade-off, in his opinion.
"If it were not for the effects of the barrier, magical items would work in our world, as they may well have done in ancient times," the Professor continued, "Although they would still not be able to be made here."
"Why not?" Kevin asked, instantly fascinated by this new revelation.
Professor Braxton was silent for a moment.
"It's hard to explain, at least in English," she admitted eventually, "Although I should confess that I don't fully understand it myself. But there really are some truly fundamental differences between the Two Worlds, despite the numerous apparent similarities. I'm sorry, but I don't think I can help you any further on this topic."
Braxton shook her head.
"In any case," she resumed, "The barrier needs to be continuously enhanced as new technologies are developed and, rather less frequently, new kinds of magic are invented. The rate of change of technology in our world implies a considerable task keeping the barrier up to date."
Again, Kevin was already vaguely aware of this. He understood that Bret's husband Eosin held a key role in the creation of new sprites, something which was a never-ending task - like painting the Forth Bridge.
"But how does the barrier work?" he asked.
The Professor hesitated briefly.
"Well, the barrier is just a region - very narrow, but although not something with precisely defined edges," she began, "But the intersection of the Two Worlds provides a natural constraint on the location of the sprites." "And there are lots of sprites, tens of thousands of them. Each kind of thing which needs to be suppressed needs a separate sprite inside the barrier."
"You mean a separate kind of sprite?" Kevin interjected.
"No, only one," The Professor insisted, looking puzzled.
"Just one sprite, for the entire area of the barrier?" Kevin exclaimed.
He had considered this aspect before, and had computed that the total surface area of the great dome of magic which enclosed the Other World must have a surface area of at least forty square miles.
"Yes, that's right," Professor Braxton confirmed, "Sprites aren't actually located in a precise place. The orange or, sometimes, green light that is often associated with their presence is just a side-effect, and doesn't really show where they are in any sense."
The Professor screwed up her face in a moment of brief concentration.
"The best way of thinking about them, I believe, is to imagine them everywhere, simultaneously - or at least within their Volume of Effect," she concluded, again emphasising the last few words.
"So why can't I see the light from the sprites inside the barrier?" Kevin asked, "I mean, when I'm on the way across the bridge - either bridge - there's no visible sign of sprites when I get to the very centre. Surely I'm right in the middle of the barrier there?"
"Well, that's true," Professor Braxton said, "Again, the explanation is unclear, but we think that the light from the sprites within the barrier travels to the parts of each of the Two Worlds which are, if you like, not there, the volume set aside to make space for the crossing."
"What do you mean?" Kevin asked, again confused.
"The crossing represents a missing space in our world," she replied slowly, "And a similar one in the Other World. A volume which ought to contain an island which should be a natural part of this planet. And this volume, it just isn't there, it's, well, somewhere else."
Just at that moment, Sanjit put her head around the office door.
"Doctor Willis is here to see you," she said, looking at the Professor, "You have an appointment with him."
"Ah, yes," she agreed, "Please ask him to wait a few moments."
She turned back to Kevin.
"Time's up, I'm afraid."
Kevin rapidly gathered up his things and thanked Professor Braxton for her time. The strange topology of the crossing and the barrier set him pondering on the implications for both of the Two Worlds, which exercised his thoughts all through the drive back to the crossing and his date with Tanji.
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