The Fireman
Image from Bernd Helfert
My name is Alfred Bennett. I have had two lives, and neither seems to have made me content. In fact, I believe there is a version of me living my old life to this day - I would be about fifty now. Perhaps I am happy there - but I can't bring myself to venture back to see how I am getting on.

I was a fireman on the Great Northern Railway, well, to be honest a passed cleaner, and kept the engines clean at the Kings Cross top shed when I was not required to feed the coal fired boilers of the steam locomotives on suburban journeys. The oldest drivers that I worked with started when the line was first built in 1852, or earlier on northern railway companies that were established before the Empress Victoria came to the throne. The lines I worked on covered the north of the largest city in the world, the Smoke, London.

Until I was twenty-three I had never worked further than Potters Bar twenty five miles from Kings Cross, and it was with a sense of expectation I entered the tunnel north of the station. On the other side the line abruptly came to a halt in a large metal train shed, brilliantly lit by what seemed to be arc-lights.

Strangely dressed men and women took my driver and I and all the passengers into a comfortable waiting area, where we were given tea or spirits according to our disposition, which had such a calming effect that we all fell asleep directly, but I was woken again as the other sleepers were being carried from the room by an assortment of animated objects that only after all that I have learned later, can I name as robots or vecs, mechanical men.

In a pleasant, clean room, somewhat similar to a public slipperbath, I was interviewed by a young woman who introduced herself as Estella. She was dressed similar to a male carpenter, without the hat, and claimed to be a technical historian, interested in hearing about my life story in my own words. The pleasant effects of the spirits I had taken loosened my tongue, but wore off after a while unlike any drink I had ever had so that I was in my sober state, answering questions that would have shocked me to the core an hour before.

It was revealed to me by Estella in her soft, foreign-sounding accent that the London I knew was an experimental Societeum, a society living in a museum replicating the conditions in a city or society that existed long ago. Two hundred years before, engineers and scientists had made a copy of London after the Great Fire, and thousands of volunteers had come to live here and take on the roles of Londoners with the very memories in their heads changed so they thought they had always been there.

Finally the last effects of the spirits (if that was indeed what they were) wore off, and I realised that I was now in what was to me a far distant future where I could never go home. On the contrary, Estelle showed me myself in an illuminated moving photograph going back to the Smoke with my driver, on the locomotive. With hindsight I can now name the other me as a replicant, prepared weeks before and filled with my memories up to the entry into Potters Bar tunnel.

All travelers out of the London Societeum were intercepted by the so- called technicians, and sent back in with new memories of travel after a space- if the circumstances dictated a return. If they did not, the traveller was educated into rejoining the mysterious society that had set up this experiment. I myself was taken because those of my class and status were underrepresented in that group of people who are allowed to join and experience the wider world- or as I found out soon enough, the worlds galore.

by Steve Bowers (2008)

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