Kevin had not often travelled very far into the world of Lyndesfarne. Most of his work had centred around technical issues on the construction sites on both sides of the straights, and most of the logistics had been dealt with by others. In particular, Peter Brenner, the Project Manager from Kevin's firm appointed at the Outline Design Review meeting, had been hugely effective - although often annoyingly pernickety - in orchestrating the planning and organisational aspects.
Nevertheless it was not possible, in Kevin's considerable professional experience, to avoid all management meetings. On a small number of occasions, it had been deemed necessary for him to attend a progress meeting with the Board of Construction. These were held in a nearby town with a name that Kevin initially failed to catch, but turned out to be something like Landberrs.
Kevin, along with Bret, had been invited to the first of these catch-up sessions. The invitation had made it very clear that attendance for both of them was mandatory. Ricard, who was to guide the two other men to the meeting, explained that Landberrs was the closest major centre to the bridge site.
"There's no portal close by," said Ricard, "In any case, it is just as quick to travel overland. I've arranged for transport for us all."
Kevin did not fully understand about portals, but knew from a NISSA briefing that they were part of the transport system on the Island. He wondered why there was no portal close to the bridge. Perhaps portals were rare, he mused, or was this some kind of a security measure to make it more difficult for the casual traveller to gain access to all of Lyndesfarne. Certainly, it seemed that something similar was in place on the Mainland side; in the absence of a car, a visitor from the Island was faced with a lengthy walk before they could get to a railway station.
Today's transport consisted of a horse-drawn trap, driven by a rather scruffy-looking man Kevin did not recognise. He clambered aboard, accompanied by Bret and Ricard, and they set off at a decent clip. It was a bright sunny day, and Kevin considered it rather pleasant trotting along and enjoying the view.
The Board of Construction building was in a setting which bore a considerable resemblance to a modern hi-tech business park in Kevin's world. This consisted of half-a-dozen low buildings, rather smart and probably recently built, separated by wide areas of grass and trees. There were also areas which Kevin thought of as car parks, although today there were rather sparsely populated with the large grey bubbles he understood to be some kind of vehicle. It felt incredibly anachronistic drawing up outside such an obviously modern building in a horse-drawn trap.
He also had some rather negative thoughts about Bret and Panit's transport to and from the kick-off meeting in Manchester. The horse and cart, and its disreputable-looking driver, he thought ruefully, was no match for the chauffeur-driven Range Rover they had enjoyed on their visit to Kevin's home world.
Kevin took a professional interest in the Board of Construction office architecture. As they arrived, his first impression was of a low building of surprisingly modest size, no more than two stories high and topped with a conventional peaked roof. The striking feature was that most of the outside walls and parts of the roof were covered with large panels of some kind, appearing completely opaque, coloured a slightly glossy black, and looking much like the glass cladding on a modern skyscraper in any Mainland city.
He turned to Bret.
"What are the black panels?" he asked.
"Ah. Well I guess you would call them windows," replied Bret, "They let light into the building."
"Of course," murmured Kevin, feeling slightly foolish at having asked such an obvious question.
He allowed himself to be guided through the entrance. He observed to his surprise that most of the floor area of the building appeared to be taken up with a large reception desk, waiting and seating areas, and what appeared to be an auditorium, much like the foyer of an office building at home. In the absence of anywhere else, he expected that the meeting would be held in the lecture hall, and began to move towards the entrance doors. After a few steps, however, he sensed that Bret and Ricard had moved in a different direction. Seeing Kevin's uncertainty, Bret pointed to a brightly-lit recess to one side of the reception desk.
"We'll take the lift."
"Where are we going?" Kevin asked, his confusion now complete.
"Down," replied Bret, "Our meeting room is on the thirteenth floor."
Bret guided Kevin into the recess. Ricard made a couple of simple gestures near the embossed area Kevin now recognised as ubiquitous here in Lyndesfarne and, without apparent movement, the doorway they had entered suddenly became covered in a translucent panel. The lift gave the gentlest of jerks, and started descending at a fair rate. Kevin rapidly surmised that the actual building did indeed extend downwards, and that it had many levels deep underground.
"How does this work?" Kevin inquired, as the lift moved quietly downwards with a barely perceptible movement.
Before Bret could answer, the lift came to a halt, and the translucent panel disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
"I'm not sure I can explain very well." Bret said uncertainly. "But, it uses a variation of the, ah, lifting magic that is also used to transport heavy items."
Kevin and Bret, accompanied by Ricard, exited the lift and walked the few steps to the meeting room. While they were waiting for the rest of the participants to arrive, Bret sketched a little more about Lyndesfarne building construction.
"In the distant past, many people here lived in caves and diggings. For, well, several reasons, it was traditional - and thought to be safer, too. I suppose that, at one time, these were natural holes, but folks have been widening and extending their excavations for thousands of years."
"But surely they must have been rather cold and damp?" inquired Kevin.
"Well, I imagine that they may have been, ages ago," replied Bret, "But dry-lining and deep drainage techniques have been widely used for a long time. More recently, we have used some, well, magic methods for rapid excavation, too."
He explained that, even now, a considerable number of the Islanders had a preference for underground living. Even buildings build above ground in the style familiar to Kevin would have at least one and usually two levels of basements, and many more traditional families would locate their bedrooms at the deepest level. Kevin speculated whether this predilection had lead to rumours about the people from Lyndesfarne, and myths about cave-dwelling goblins, hobbits and so on.
"Wasn't it dark in the caves, in the olden days?" he asked.
"Not really. We've had smokeless fire for heating and lighting for a long time. And of course, these days we've got windows, too."
Bret indicated the large area of what Kevin had assumed was glass lining one wall of the room. It appeared to be a picture window that looked out over the shrubbery surrounding the building which Kevin had noticed on the way in. The sunshine was bright, and he could see the leaves moving in the slight breeze. It had seemed all so natural, even mundane, to Kevin that he had not consciously noticed it until now.
"But we're underground!" he exclaimed.
Bret could hardly keep the amusement out of his voice.
Kevin stood and walked over to the window. Even with his nose pressed up against the glass, or whatever the substance was, the image was perfect. He was even able to feel the warmth of the sunlight against his skin.
"Windows like this are a standard feature of modern architecture here," Bret explained patiently. "Light from outside is passed to many windows on the inside."
Bret explained that only light was passed through the window, and in only one direction. Nothing physical could get though in either direction, and no one could see in, which meant that they were very secure. They could not be easily broken or forced open, and it was not possible to climb in or out of a window, even in an emergency.
Bret also made it clear that the windows were quite different from the portals used for transport.
"Portals are point to point," he explained, "Everything that enters comes out at the other side. Windows are one to many. Light enters in one place, and is relayed to multiple other places. So as you can see, the outside view is available to everyone."
While Bret had been talking, the room had been filling up with people. Panit had turned up, and had staked his claim to the seat opposite the door, where he had a clear view of who was arriving. Kevin had not yet discovered his true role, and it turned out that little additional information was forthcoming during this meeting. Panit said almost nothing, but his dark eyes darted around suspiciously during the entire session.
Quarl the anonymous-looking manager from the Board of Construction and Craz the Overseer had both turned up. Quarl was as forgettable as ever, and Craz was unchanged from the previous encounter, apart from the substitution of a lime green shirt.
Both Smudger and Tweedledum were notable by their absence. Kevin would have been astonished if the creatively lazy Smudger had emerged, but was a little disappointed by Tweedledum's non-appearance. But both had sent formal notes of apology, and Kevin had no easy way to find out more.
The purpose of the meeting was a progress report on the site selection and planning activities. The session was introduced by Peter Brenner, the Project Manager from Kevin's company. He surprised Kevin, but apparently no-one else, by speaking fluently in the Lyndesfarne language, before repeating himself in English, presumably for Kevin's benefit. This was the first time in Kevin's experience that someone from his own world, outside the confines of NISSA, had demonstrated fluency in the language. I suppose I always knew it was possible, mused Kevin, and there must be many people who can communicate readily on the Island. He supposed that Peter's (slightly nitpicking) organisational efficiency, together with his grasp of the Islander's language, was the reason he was selected for this management role.
Kevin sat between Bret and Aneil, the interpreter. Despite Aneil's official role, more often than not it was Bret who provided Kevin with translations when they were needed. Fortunately, the presentations had been made available on paper in both the Lyndesfarne language and English, so Kevin was able to follow the thrust of the discussions by reading the English version of the material.
The presentation on the progress of site selection and solution design was a collaborative work between Kevin and Bret, to be presented by Bret. The two men had worked together on the substance of the presentation in a small room in the hostel where Kevin sometimes stayed. They had written in English on some kind of large slate blackboard using what looked like ordinary white chalk. When they had completed each section, Bret had made a gesture and the chalk marks had faded completely, ready for the next bit.
When they had finished, Bret had astonished Kevin by folding up the slate as if it was made of newspaper, so that it fitted easily into his bag. In the meeting, Bret now unfolded the blackboard, and placed it on an easel that had been conveniently provided. Kevin recognised the layout and diagrams, but somehow (yes, it must be magic, thought Kevin resignedly) the words on the blackboard had become translated into the Lyndesfarne script.
There was a considerable amount of discussion following this presentation, much of it in turns contradictory, inadequately considered and overtly opinionated. The issue at hand was to draw up a short list of promising sites for the New Bridge which should be investigated further. Of course, the bridge would only actually be built on one of those locations, so the longer the short-list, the more waste of time and money. Kevin did his best to guide the discussion towards some of the more promising sites, while trying to make it appear that other people - presumably more responsible people - were actually forming the decisions.
All this took an inordinate amount of time, not helped with the lengthy break for a decidedly luxurious lunch. Finally a plausible short-list of sites was agreed upon, and follow-up actions recorded to commission more detailed surveys. This would require specialist sub-contractors, and it was minuted that Peter would arrange for suitable experts to be hired. Why take minutes, Kevin wearily repeated the old joke to himself, when the meetings take hours?
After the meeting, Bret, Ricard and Kevin made their way outside to find the same horse, trap and driver waiting for them. They made their way back following the same route they had used in the morning, so that Kevin could return to the Mainland that evening. Kevin wondered vaguely what had happened to the horse and driver during the hours they had spent in the meeting. Presumably they had waited patiently, enjoying the sunshine. Nevertheless, they seemed to be very fresh, so perhaps there was somewhere nearby where they could have rested.
This last thought struck Kevin as strange, as he has not seen any stables or indeed any other horse-drawn transport on the trip. From everything he had heard, Lyndesfarne was a sophisticated culture and made extensive use of systems which he would have described as 'high-tech', had he come across them in his own world.
Clearly, horse-drawn transport was only used over the bridge, for obvious reasons. He had also observed those grey bubbles described as vehicles, but they had always been parked up and he had never seen any on the road. So how do must people get around, wondered Kevin, as the horse clip-clopped its way thought the chill of the evening? And how are all those goods which come across the causeway transported once they get to Lyndesfarne? Perhaps portals, he concluded, are more important than I thought.
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