"You know, it's not exactly correct to say 'the world of Lyndesfarne'," said Bret deliberately.
Bret and Kevin were undertaking another inspection trip, this time checking the alignment of the roadbed from the Island side. Ricard had declined to join them on this occasion, seemingly content to deliver Kevin into Bret's care for the morning. The two halves of the bridge were beginning to approach each other across the straights as the construction work continued, and they were reassuring themselves that the configuration of the pre-fabricated sections was as close to perfect as possible.
At least, that was what they were supposed to be doing. In fact, right now, they were sheltering from the rain, which was particularly heavy and penetrating, accompanied by a wind strong enough to risk not only blowing them off their feet, but over the edge of the low cliffs and into the surf below.
The two men were sheltered from the worst of the weather by a yawning rocky overhang, and warmly wrapped in their waterproof capes and hoods. Bret had produced a flask of the hot chocolate which Kevin had begun to appreciate so much all those months ago. Kevin had sipped the warming drink, and then made some remark about his first visit to the world of Lyndesfarne.
"Ah," Kevin responded in a non-committal fashion, cupping his hands around the drink Bret had just handed him. "So what should I be saying, them?"
"Well, firstly, it's not quite the correct pronunciation. I know it's the way it's said in your world, but the derivation is from our name."
Bret then said a word which could, perhaps, be understood as Lyndesfarne although it seemed, Kevin thought privately, to have more spitting in the pronunciation than he was comfortable with.
"I can see the evolution," he responded, "But changes in intonation for the same name in different languages are not exactly uncommon, I'm told."
Bret snorted and nodded, at least as far as Kevin could see under the voluminous clothing.
"The other thing I wanted to mention is that Lyndesfarne is not a world at all."
"What do you mean?" Kevin demanded.
"It's actually only one rather small country, just one part of an entire world."
Kevin already knew this. Briefing sessions at NISSA had made it clear that the other world was almost exactly the same size and shape as his own. Naturally enough, he had also seen many paper maps of the surrounding areas, as part of the design and planning work, which had all indicated a geography broadly similar to the area around the Island as seen from his own world.
"I'm sure that's true," he said, "But I've never heard the world referred to as anything else. Does it have a proper name?"
According to Bret, the world had a name which Kevin, confirmed non-linguist that he was, again failed to catch, and came with a slight suggestion that Bret was clearing his throat.
"I suppose it's too much to ask for a translation?" Kevin asked.
"Hah! This is one of those linguistic points which make things difficult for the Guild of Directions."
Bret went on to explain that there was no word in common usage in English that refers to his world in its entirety. Apparently, any plausible words in English were either archaic or mired in mythology, and would certainly be disapproved of, Kevin imagined, by Professor Call-me-Alan. The best translation was, of course "Earth", but this hardly helped to distinguish the two worlds.
Bret put the flask of chocolate back into his bag, and produced what Kevin recognised as a magic slate. He unfolded it rapidly, and then made a complex series of gestures, stopping several times, presumably to ponder what was required next. Finally, he turned the face of the slate to Kevin. The surface was covered with a map, apparently drawn in white, green and blue chalk.
"We are here," jabbing a finger to indicate a tiny smudge on a coastline.
The map showed a wide peninsula, attached at the northern end to a continent that filled half the map and apparently extended off the eastern side. The isthmus enclosed a long narrow sea on its eastern side, while the map showed an ocean stretching to the west. To the south, a broader sea was evident, with a coastline at the very edge of the displayed map, except for one large promontory. It looked, though Kevin, a bit like Italy, but without the boot effect.
"This area here," Bret said, indicating the peninsula, "Is Lyndesfarne proper."
According to Bret, the country of Lyndesfarne comprised the entire neck of land, almost up to the northernmost point of the enclosed sea, and included numerous islands on the eastern side. It was one of these islands which represented the crossing to Kevin's world. As far as he could judge, that little island was at the same latitude as the island of Lyndesfarne in Kevin's own world.
"So what's your name for that island?" Kevin enquired.
Bret grinned again.
"We call it England," he said.
It was Kevin's turn to chuckle.
Bret took back the slate.
"Look at this."
Bret started gesturing again, concentrating for a few moments on his actions, and then showing the surface to Kevin. The image was now of a globe, once again rendered in chalky shades, and moving slowly on the surface of the slate. The representation was of a world which, if one looked very quickly indeed, could initially be mistaken for the Earth, but appears increasingly different as one looked closer.
Kevin was fascinated. He stared at the moving map for several minutes, lost in wonder at the complexity - and assured reality - of this other world. Finally, he dragged his attention back to Bret, who was looking on patently.
"So why is the crossing just there?" he asked, "Surely it could be anywhere in the world?"
Bret paused, looking thoughtful for a while.
"I probably shouldn't tell you about this, but I want to explain something to you, something about my personal motivation. And, to do that, I need to tell you a little about the history of my world."
"A long time ago," Bret continued, "By which I mean several thousand years, some people discovered how to construct a trans-world portal. It took a huge amount of effort, with scores of skilled, well, magical technicians might be the phrase, working for decades, but finally a crossing between your world and mine was constructed."
"You know, I felt sure that the crossing must be artificial," breathed Kevin quietly, not wanting to interrupt the flow of Bret's exposition.
"Oh, this crossing here was not the only one, and certainly it was not the first to be constructed. Indeed, it is believed to be almost the last one to be completed. But it is widely believed the only one left now."
"Wow," thought Kevin, only later realising that the word had actually come out of his mouth. "So how were such crossings made?"
"Frankly," Bret responded, "I don't really understand the process in its entirety and, in any case, I doubt I could translate the concepts required."
Kevin nodded. His lack of knowledge of the magic of Lyndesfarne, and his inability to talk about it, had once again proven to be an obstacle.
"Still, once the process had been proven," Bret continued, folding up the slate while he spoke, "Various groups of people did so, in widely different parts of our world, often in secret, and for a variety of motives, some of them less good than others."
"What sort of purposes?" Kevin asked.
"Oh, the usual kind of thing. Trade, conquest, and a whole variety of political and religious reasons. Initially, it was thought that these crossings were linked to many different worlds. It was only later discovered that all of them when to the same world - yours, of course."
"Why is that?"
"There appears to be some kind of exclusion principle in effect. As I understand the theory, a crossing could be established to any world, any of an infinity of universes but, once one crossing had been established, no other world could be linked to ours."
"So there were other crossings to my world?" Kevin cried out, "Where?"
"Well, all over the place, at one time." Bret replied.
He explained that some crossings had been established in places where the differences in geography or climate made them far too obvious or, more usually, almost impossible to navigate safely. Originally, many different groups controlled the crossings, and some were extremely cavalier in ensuring reasonable compatibility on both sides.
"Some crossings allowed entire lakes to drain into deserts, or seas to flood farmland," he observed. "One reason that our crossing is still here is that it was carefully chosen to have approximately the same geography, climate and average weather conditions on either side. By that time, the portal constructors had learned from their mistakes, and were much more cautious in choosing their placements."
"There were so many, well, environmental disasters over the centuries that there was a need for more control. Eventually, the really dangerous crossings were shut down, with governments and other controlling organisations sometimes using extreme measures to ensure that this happened."
Kevin enquired what was meant by "extreme measures", and learnt that this included what Bret described, with obvious irony, as "explosive decommissioning", as well as what sounded very much like direct military action.
"So, now we have a continuous process of risk assessment, with the threat of political action to quash any threat." Bret explained, "And it's effective. Crossings have been permanently closed in recent times - inside the last hundred years or so. Even this crossing was at severe risk of closure itself not so long ago."
"Why?" Kevin demanded.
Bret's explanation was lengthy, but it seemed that the global wars of the twentieth century had been monitored very closely. It was apparent to Kevin that the Lyndesfarne authorities had a huge craving for political stability, and any risk to that stability would provoke them to take drastic steps.
"Could you make new crossings?" Kevin persisted.
"Technically, perhaps," Bret answered, "Although the time and effort, not to mention the cost, would be huge - it would make the budget for our bridge pale into insignificance. It would be a brave or foolish person to attempt such a thing without obtaining permission. And just negotiating that permission could take half a lifetime!"
Bret made it clear that some extremists maintained that it would be best to close this last crossing. Some sects wanted to set up an entirely new set of crossings to some more tranquil world, while others wanted an enforced isolation. However, there was no majority backing for either of these approaches, mainly, as Kevin understood it, on the basis of "better the devil you know".
"And as for my own position," continued Bret, "I'm personally completely convinced that this crossing - the crossing - is a very precious thing. Setting aside the economic advantages, which are valuable but not ultimately essential for my world, or for yours, I think that a limited knowledge of your world, and some access to it, is actually vital to maintaining the long-term stability in my country, my world."
"So, the reason I want our project to succeed, our bridge to be completed on time, is to maintain a degree of communication between our worlds, with the right balance of control and commerce. That's where my interests are."
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