Kevin's first insight into the unusual nature of the New Bridge project was at the Induction and Launch meeting in the Manchester office. He arrived first, as he tended to do, and helped himself to the rather naff coffee from the flasks provided by the caterers. Clutching his plastic cup of cooling coffee, he wandered around the room.
The firm of international architects that had employed Kevin since he left university had offices all over the world. This office, he mused, occupying the third floor of a rather anonymous office block in central Manchester, must be the least prepossessing. The meeting room for the project kick-off had windows that looked out over a blank red-brick wall only ten feet across a narrow alley. Well, he thought, at least we won't be distracted by anyone in the offices across there.
Having been around in the industry for a couple of decades, Kevin was not entirely surprised to recognise several acquaintances as they arrived. Duncan Tweedy, a red-faced and rotund project manager from a firm of civil engineering contractors, greeted Kevin as he entered the room. Tweedledum, as he was known behind his back, was infamous for his hearty manner and loud taste in ties, and Kevin braced himself for the inevitable robust handshake.
"Hello Duncan," said Kevin, discretely flexing his hand after the mauling it had so recently received. "So you're going to be the contractors for this project, are you?"
"Well, actually, old boy, there are two firms in the frame for this one. And I've never heard of the other company before". Tweedledum frowned, and lowered his voice slightly. "Apparently this is a cross-border project, and there are political reasons."
Kevin, who made it a policy never to enquire too deeply into "political reasons", said nothing. Various partners and managers had been drifting into the room, but his attention was distracted at that moment by the two men who had just entered.
Up to that point, the men in the room - and they were all men - could have been assembled from an identikit of the British Professional Male. Hair shaved or clipped short, to disguise encroaching baldness; sober and usually slightly tatty business suits; blue or white shirts, and ties evidently chosen either by wives or in some failed attempt to communicate individuality and a sense of humour.
The newcomers, therefore, stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Both men were tall and slender. One had an open, smiling, even boyish face and a full head of blond hair, tied in a neat ponytail. The other was swarthy, with neatly clipped black hair and beard, and looked around as if expecting dastardly plots in every quarter. Both wore what could only be described as robes, in a startling shade of deep green, and carried matching brand-new burgundy leather briefcases.
Spotting the direction of Kevin's stare, Tweedledum swivelled around. "Ah, yes. They'll be the representatives from the Lyndesfarne Board of Construction, I'll wager."
David Macmillan, the Partner responsible for UK Crossings contracts, chose that moment to speak. "I think we're all here, gentlemen, so let's get started."
During the inevitably lengthy and sometimes tedious meeting that followed, Kevin learned a great deal about the project plans, budgets and timescales, and almost nothing about the technical problems being faced. This was not unusual. Partners and managers tended to worry about "the bottom line", and simply assumed that the technicalities could be sorted out. They also tended to take for granted that these technical issues could be solved very quickly. Surprisingly, this was not their assumption today. Which was just as well, as it slowly became clear to an astonished and disbelieving Kevin just how unusual a set of technical challenges he would be facing, and that there would have to be significant extra time allocated in the plan to resolve them.
Architects who became famous, or at least had their names mentioned in the Sunday newspapers, veered towards designing buildings which were high on novelty and visual impact, and low on features such as practicality and maintainability. Words like "carbuncle", "monstrosity" and "eyesore" tended to accompany public reactions to their work, from royalty and Sun readers alike.
Kevin's skills lay elsewhere. He had a knack of suggesting neat and reliable solutions to obscure civil engineering problems. His most recent success was the design of a deep-water sea crossing in New Zealand. High cliffs on one side and low-lying land on the other had made mainstream bridge construction extremely challenging. Unusually hard rock and water too deep for conventional pilings had led to a solution involving a series of huge floating concrete caissons supporting a sloping bridge, with a final steel cable-stay section including a cunning array of vast hinges to accommodate bridge movement caused by tidal changes in sea level. It had been hailed as a masterpiece, an ingenious piece of modern design. It still gave Kevin a slightly smug feeling whenever he saw it featured in articles in technical journals or trade magazines.
It had however cost him his marriage. On his return from the Antipodes, his wife had announced that she was leaving him, in a fashion which seemed such a huge surprise at the time. She had found someone else, some who would look after her, someone who would be with her all the time. Actually, in the end, Kevin left her, moving himself and a very few possessions out of their house in the suburbs, which seemed the simplest thing to do at the time. With hindsight, thought Kevin, always 20-20, I should have seen it all coming.
Bret, the blond man from the Board of Construction, was to be Kevin's partner from the Lyndesfarne side. He talked knowledgeably and convincingly about design and construction techniques which Kevin did not understand and, frankly, sounded like magic. It soon became clear, though, that Bret was equally flummoxed by Kevin's descriptions of engineering techniques which would be familiar to undergraduates.
Almost immediately, Kevin gained his first insight about the unique nature of the project. He quickly realised that there would in fact have to be two bridges, each constructed according to the different principles and laws of each world, and joined in the middle. But how could the joint be constructed, in a region where neither magic nor engineering was reliable?
During a coffee break, a flabbergasted Kevin was told by Bret that somehow a bridge had already built between the worlds which joined in the middle. He knew he would have to find out more about how it had been achieved.
Most of the talking during the planning meeting was done by David, Tweedledum and the dark-haired man in the green robe, who was introduced as Panit. He was mainly concerned with the commercial aspects: payment schedules, terms and conditions and so forth. Project management seemed beneath him; when pressed, he allowed that he would be appointing someone from "the Board" as "Overseer".
"OK, time out," said Tweedledum, after what seemed like hours of inconclusive discussions, "We'll plan for a plan, then."
Panit also made several pointed remarks about the need for "professional discretion". Kevin was not in the habit of discussing his work with anyone; most people neither cared nor understood, and those few who did were probably even more boring than he was. Besides, he reflected, who would believe me anyway?
The meeting finished eventually and, in the manner of professional meetings everywhere, was concluded by a summary of action points. Kevin would get a briefing in magic from one of the organisations set up to study Lyndesfarne, and then join Bret to produce a report on "technical compatibility and solutioning". This was management-speak for "go and look at the old bridge, and then work out how you are going to build the new one". Kevin made arrangements to meet with Bret, and then the Lyndesfarne contingent left together.
Kevin packed his laptop computer and notebook in his bag, and wandered downstairs to the lobby, already deep in thought. He caught sight of Bret and Panit being ushered by a uniformed chauffeur into the back of a Range Rover with blacked-out windows. Mentally comparing the car to his own rather tatty Volvo, as well as thinking back to the very discreet meeting they had just left, Kevin briefly wondered about where the money behind this project was coming from, and why the Board members wanted so much to stay out of sight.
The next day saw Kevin out of bed ludicrously early and pounding up the motorway towards Newcastle in the Volvo. Newcastle was the nearest major city to Lyndesfarne, and Kevin had a feeling (correctly, as it turned out) that he was going to be spending a lot of time there.
He had a briefing appointment (a "sheep-dip session", as Tweedledum had put it) with a Professor Wilmington of the Newcastle Institute for Special Sciences and Arts, also known as NISSA. NISSA was nominally attached to the University of Newcastle, and was located on its campus. Despite its innocent-sounding name, this Institute was one of the few accessible organisations whose sole purpose was to study the world of Lyndesfarne.
Kevin arrived late for the meeting, very much in contrast with his characteristic punctuality, having managed to get lost on the University campus and failed to find anyone who could guide him to the right building. Eventually, he discovered more-or-less by accident the imposing edifice that housed the NISSA organisation, and was rapidly directed to Professor Wilmington's office.
Kevin had vaguely expected that the Professor would sport a stereotypical bow-tie, briar pipe and a tweed jacket with worn leather elbow patches. In fact, the Professor ("call me Alan") was a youngish fit-looking man in jeans and T-shirt. He had wild curly black hair and a tanned face with a stubble beard, and looked for all the world like a latter-day romantic Celtic poet.
He also came equipped with a surprisingly down-to-earth attitude, especially given the subject matter. He had an easy manner although, being a University teacher, he sometimes tended towards a somewhat pontificating style. Nevertheless, he usually conveyed information in simple terms, although this left Kevin feeling bemused more often than not.
"Fundamentally," explained Alan, "We don't know how or why magic works over there, in much the same way that we don't really understand why, say, electricity, works here."
"But we can describe what happens, and how to interact with it. Certainly enough so that you can get around. After all, you don't have to know much about electricity to turn on the light, do you?"
Kevin spent most of the day with Alan and his colleagues, and had gone away feeling torn: partially that the simple actions and gestures (the Professor disapproved of the word "spell") he had been taught to make really were no more difficult than flipping a light switch, and partially because he was convinced that he would never be able to make anything work in a world where his engineering skills were worse than useless.
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