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Uber

Sean Williams is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over forty novels and one hundred stories. As well as his original fiction for adults, young adults, and children, he has worked in universes created by other people, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. He also enjoys collaborating, most recently with Garth Nix. He has a PhD in the literary use and misuse of teleporters, which feature in his Twinmaker series--"a gripping scifi story of friendship, identity, and accidentally destroying the universe" (Amie Kaufman)--available from Allen & Unwin in Australia, Balzer & Bray in the US, and Egmont in the UK. He lives up the road from Australia's finest chocolate factory with his family and a pet plastic fish.
"Hop in, mate."
I double-checked the app. My driver was supposedly "Edward" in a white Camry. His photo matched, but if the car had ever been white, it wasn't now. Down the passenger side trailed what looked like giant claw marks.
"Seriously?"
"Just superficial. Tom, is it?"
It seemed wrong to send him packing, and besides, that would hurt my ranking.
The interior of the car was little better than the exterior, smelling of molten plastic and covered in what looked suspiciously like ash.
"Forgive the mess, mate. Been a bad day."
Edward looked oddly familiar, but I couldn't place him. He was bearded, weathered, and dressed in camo gear.
"Cosplay?" I ventured. Fury Road, perhaps.
Edward grinned. He was missing a tooth. "I know what that is. Drove a bunch home from Comic-con last month. They were a riot."
We pulled away from the curb, the screen on Edward's app guiding him through the suburban streets, heading for the city. His phone was a model I didn't recognize, with a crack right across its face.
"You haven't figured it out yet," Edward said, looking at me sideways as he drove.
"If it's not cosplay, you've had a really bad day."
"A bad life, mate," he said. "But that's not what I'm talking about. Where you've seen me before."
I turned to face him full on. "How...?"
"You'll know how when you know why. As to the car... well, people like me, we come from the edges, where it's thin. Reality, I mean. Some of us go back and forth, world to world. It's not as hard as you think."
He took a corner and I took a hard look at him. Edward seemed the kind of guy who might catch, kill, and clean an animal with his bare hands but wouldn't waste time burdening a stranger with his brand of crazy.
"You're having me on."
"Nah. You'll see us everywhere, now you know to look. Beggars. Streetwalkers. Lunatics. Survivalists. All types."
"Doing... what?"
"Well, I'm one of the lucky ones. Got a car, so I can work. Plenty less fortunate...."
He shrugged expressively, and I decided to play along.
"That would explain missing people. They go too close to the edges and-- what, fall off?"
"More like stepping through honey. Yeah, I guess it might explain a few. But the traffic is mainly one-way. Believe me, no one would willingly go where I come from. It's the same for most. If you're not careful, you end up in one of the really shithouse universes."
I thought of our collapsing environment and recent political troubles. "This isn't one of them?"
"Land of milk and honey! And doesn't the government know it, calling us freeloaders, job-stealers, terrorists, whatever. But the way we see it, you need us just as much as we need you. Those of us with families and friends back home are desperate. We'll do anything."
Right, I thought. Activism plus a captive audience of one. Cute. Better than passing the time chatting about kids that might be imaginary, or in obstinate silence, I guessed.
"I don't want to argue with you," I said, "but what about disease? Isn't that a concern?"
"Yeah, well, there have been some fuck-ups. Would you personally slam the door on a parallel Earth full of people dying from AIDS, though? When the bug's probably going to leak through anyway? When the cure might be over here in your science--or in your genes? The smart fellow's share is on every dish, as my Daddo used to say."
If he was trying to get a reaction, he succeeded.
"What did you say?"
"You heard me."
"That proverb... my grandfather used to say it, too."
"And you couldn't say daideo either, could you? So you called him Daddo instead. Weird, huh?"
I looked at him again, and this time really looked at him, through the beard, and the tan, and the scars....
"It's impossible. The app says 'Edward.'"
"Fake ID, mate, or else I'd be out on my ear."
"But you're--"
"You. Yes."
"From a--"
"Parallel world. Saw our name and face pop up in the app and I thought, why not?"
"You're not going to--"
"Kill you and take over your life? Hardly worth the bother. I'd inevitably slip up, and then I'd be in a whole world of trouble. And in return, you won't turn me in?"
"No, of course I won't." That would be impossible, morally and practically. I had deadlines to meet, and the process of calling the dogs on one's hard-done-by twin would undoubtedly take more than a phone call to immigration.
"What happened? I mean, how did you... I... become you?"
Edward-the-alternate-Tom waved philosophically with his left hand, a gesture I too made when words were inadequate. "Hot war in the Middle East, 1986. Nasty. We don't think about it much, anymore. Got bigger things to worry about."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"You'll figure it out. Oh hey, we're here. Nice joint."
The car pulled to a halt. Work's facade seemed particularly hollow this morning as I considered the lot of my other self and people like him. If my reality really wasn't as terrible here as everyone seemed to think, I swore to be more appreciative, and kinder to those less fortunate.
"It's been... something," I said, holding out my hand.
"You said it, mate. Take it easy."
The battered old Camry drove off up the street, and I remembered my question. My obligation.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. There was his face--my face, old before its time--under the Ride Complete banner.
I tapped the screen.
Five stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 23rd, 2017


I don't consider myself a political writer, or at least not a terribly polemical one. I prefer the ambiguous message to the overt. "Uber" is one of those stories that accrued layer by layer, with no obvious or particular genesis, and unusually for me many of the layers in this case reflected my opinions on the current state of the world. I won't labor any particular points, but I do hope that the ending can be read in sufficiently different ways to unnerve everyone. That's what good political writing should aim to do.

- Sean Williams

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