The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 14

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After the comfort break at the service station, Bret sat quietly for many minutes, evidently deep in thought while the big car made its way swiftly back onto the motorway. Kevin too was in no mood to make inconsequential small talk and stared blankly out of the window at the cars and buildings flashing past.

Finally, Bret cleared his throat and turned to the other man.

"You know, there's one aspect of this whole affair which is really worrying me."

"What's that?"

"That the good Doctor Wollack was an epidemiologist," he replied, "One who specialises in the distribution and control of disease in human populations."

"But why is that aspect of special concern?" Kevin asked, puzzled.

Bret looked intensely frustrated for a moment, then relaxed and began to explain.

"Well," he said slowly, "It's all bound up with control of the crossing and, in particular, what must not be allowed to travel between the Worlds."

"Well, I'm aware that the Guardians keep careful track of everyone who travels over the crossing," Kevin responded. "It's not just people," Bret said animatedly, "It's also the technology, the engineering products of your world that we are worried about."

"I'm not sure I understand," Kevin said, meaning that he was sure that he did not understand.

"Take your powered machinery," Bret gestured at the vehicle within which they were travelling, "In my world, cars and lorries are seen as dirty transport."

He looked thoughtful for a moment.

"But on the other hand," he continued, "Those machines - together with your construction machinery - would make it easier and cheaper to construct new homes in the Other World."

"But why is that an issue?" Kevin persisted.

"Well, it means that new houses are rare - so that homes will usually have been in the same family for generations," Bret explained, "And of course portal transport means that it is practical to travel long distances for work, or other reasons, and still be home in time for dinner."

Bret paused briefly, perhaps in exasperation.

"We have worked very hard to ensure that all equipment of that kind is completely disabled in Lyndesfarne. That's what my husband Eosin does all day - augment the anti-technology defences in the Barrier between the Two Worlds." "But I still don't see why this is a problem?"

Bret smiled in what seemed to Kevin a very slightly condescending manner.

"Hmmm. Let me take another example," he suggested, "Telephones and especially mobile phones."

"What's the problem with phones?"

Bret explained at some length. Kevin came to understand that the Boards in Lyndesfarne like the formality and relative slowness of written communications, as it tended to encourage measured responses to misunderstandings and insults, and therefore a polite and ordered society. More interestingly, it seemed to Kevin, the rate at which letters were delivered was sufficiently slow to prevent an epidemic of panic - or at least slow it down - under circumstances of major incident or disaster.

"So all kinds of radio communication devices are specifically checked and disabled by the sprites in the barrier," Bret concluded.

"I'm confused here," Kevin said, "Surely it is possible to use magical means to transmit voices over long distances. In fact, I know it's possible. The hostel, the Walled Garden, where I've stayed - there was a gesture I could make to speak to the people at reception."

"Well, that true," Bret confirmed, "But the magic you refer to is rarely used, and in any case is really only used over ranges you could shout if you had to."

"So it could work over long distances, but that's not allowed?"

Bret nodded silently.

Kevin thought about this. People in the world of Lyndesfarne were allowed to have near-instantaneous personal transport, but not instantaneous voice communications.

"So the permitted use of magic is carefully controlled too," he asked, "Even in your world?"

"It is," Bret confirmed.

Kevin considered this carefully. So, he mused, the existence of instantaneous transport portals, available to anyone, together with a low availability of housing led to a high level of social cohesion of families over three - or even more - generations. Similarly, encouraging letter-writing for everyday interactions was also a tool - a social engineering device, even - to permit frequent communications for keep friends and family close, but slow enough to prevent panic in extreme situations. From the viewpoint he had just inferred, it was apparent that technical - or at least magical - stability was regarded by those in positions of authority as a key to social stability.

"So," Kevin said slowly, "Use of magic is controlled to minimise change in the world of Lyndesfarne?"

"Yes, that's right enough," Bret confirmed, "And, as you have already discovered, some people in positions of power regard this stability as something to be protected at any cost."

He stirred uncomfortably in his seat.

"All kinds of recent engineering developments and new technologies, the sorts of things that have transformed life in many parts of your world beyond recognition - these are all banned. Even though, in many ways, your scientific instruments have vastly more capabilities, more precision than anything we can achieve with magic."

Kevin thought about the laser distance measuring devices used in surveying. These were immensely accurate, he knew, and very easy to use, and relied on at least two technologies - lasers and microprocessors - which were unheard-of fifty years ago.

"And even that kind of thinking," Bret concluded, shaking his head, "Is itself an example of cultural pollution." The other man seemed anxious, Kevin thought, is if wanting to impart some vital information but not quite sure how to go about it.

"But the other thing we have always worried about," Bret resumed, "Is animals and creatures of all kinds escaping from one world, or even being transported deliberately..." "Like the Loch Ness Monster?" Kevin interrupted, having heard the true story from Tanji and her Uncle some months ago. "Yes, just like that," Bret continued, "And dragons, too. It's no surprise, then, that stories of strange and impossible creatures are commonplace in your world."

Kevin thought about this. He knew that, over the years, there had been reports of creatures much like Nessie from all over his world in centuries past, and this made a lot of sense now that he knew that creatures like that really did exist.

"So wild animals have frequently escaped from your world to ours?" Kevin asked.

"Yes, I'm afraid so," Bret confirmed, "And of course in the other direction, too. But what concerns me right now is the smaller creatures that travel uncontrolled between the worlds, indeed, creatures too small to be easily seen - what you would describe as microscopic."

Kevin was intrigued. The barrier did not interfere with living creatures, by design. He could have so easily missed the implication that germs - bacteria and so on - must move between the worlds very frequently, as would all kinds of smaller creature.

"It seems that the crossings between our Two Worlds," Bret continued sadly, "Have caused untold suffering and misery for many people."

"What do you mean?" Kevin asked.

"Diseases, and plagues," the other man responded, "Travelling from one world to another. Plagues of locusts, flying leaf-shredders, eating everything in their path, in both worlds. And then there was the Bubonic plague, the infamous Black Death, spreading unchecked in London and Newcastle - and also in Ireland - carried by fleas on rats, hidden in cargoes which crossed between the worlds. Similar contagious plagues occurred in China, and in various parts of central Europe, too."

Bret looked dismayed.

"The risk of diseases travelling over the crossings was one of the reasons why several crossings were closed in the past," he admitted. "Of course, this potential path for infections was not understood when portals were first being constructed. Indeed, it was scientific discoveries in your world that first alerted us to the risks of microbes and bacteria."

Kevin was confused.

"Surely you knew about optical magnification?"

Bret shook his head slowly.

"Not really. These discoveries were the result of the use of machines - optical instruments such as the microscope and, more importantly, the precision machinery for cutting and polishing glass lenses, together with the discoveries of van Leeuwenhoek."

"It had simply never occurred to anyone in my world before then to use magic to magnify anything that small," he concluded slightly sheepishly, "After all, what was the point?"

Kevin smiled ruefully. He had hitherto assumed that technological developments - or their analogies - were and always had been more advanced in the Other World. It came as something of a surprise to understand that progress was sometimes made in his world, ahead of magical capabilities.

"Once it was realised that there was something important," Bret continued, "Magicians rapidly devised a way of viewing really small objects based on an inverse, I suppose, of the techniques we have had for a long time - you may already be aware of these - to see things clearly at a distance."

"But it was already too late. We now strongly suspect that, over the millennia, all kinds of microscopic flora and fauna have made their way in both directions: bacteria, the seeds and spores of plants, plankton in the seas, the eggs of fish and similar creatures, and so on."

Bret paused for breath. Kevin sat quietly, wondering what revelations might follow.

"The effect of this," he resumed, "Is that, by now, the Two Worlds are completely intertwined at the biological level. With a very few exceptions - a few of the larger animal and bird species - animals and plants are identical everywhere."

Bret was silently thoughtful for another long moment. Kevin thought about what he had just heard. He had certainly realised that his own world and that of Lyndesfarne were very similar in so many ways, but he had completely failed to realise that this was not a coincidence. The reason the Two Worlds were so similar was that the existence of numerous crossings in ages past had made them similar.

"And all this, I suppose," Bret resumed, "leads me to my point. While the risk of cultural pollution of our society is well-contained by the magic of the barrier, there is another less-publicised reason - even amongst those of us closest to the Board of Control - why we like to keep the number of people crossing the bridge to a minimum."

Kevin thought he knew what was coming, but kept quiet, waiting for Bret to explain further.

"Neither world can afford another plague, another uncontrolled pandemic. So, to keep the risk of epidemics as small as possible, we watch carefully for this kind of thing."

Bret looked uncharacteristically solemn.

"There are now magical means of detection, so we think we can identify sources of contagion and so on, and of course the Guardians look out for the more obvious cases. But I guess the thing we are really worried about is that someone, somewhere will attempt to use such an infection as a weapon."

Kevin was aghast, horrified.

"You can't be serious?" he exclaimed.

"I am," Bret said with utter calm, "And it is the kind of thing that gives me sleepless nights."

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