Featured December 20, 2020 Fantasy
From the editor:
It’s not easy when someone with your name lives a life you can only dream about. But it’s even worse when a changeling demon steals your identity to try to take that fame for their own.
Author Jo Miles lives in Maryland and works with nonprofits on digital marketing and advocacy. Their work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Analog, Nature Futures, and more.
From the author: Jade hates getting emails meant for the famous person who shares her name. But there are more than two Jade Whitmores -- and some of them are in trouble.
This email wasn’t meant for me.
I could sense that without even opening it, yet it sat there in my inbox, taunting me with its subject line: “Trying hard to reach you.” I knew who the you probably was, and it wasn’t me.
Getting an email meant for someone else always felt like a pinprick of violation, an invasion of the sacred space of my inbox that ought to be reserved for my friends, my bank, that one clothing site, and well-intentioned strangers offering not-to-be-missed opportunities to get rich now. It was bad enough getting the occasional newsletter I didn’t sign up for, but all the really exciting emails –– the interview requests, the book offers, the speaking gigs, anything that made my heart leap in anticipation – those were always meant for Jade Whitmore, hot-shot marketing guru. Never Jade Whitmore, barista by day, up-and-coming video-blog celebrity by night. Ever since famous-Jade achieved celebrity status, more and more of her emails had mistakenly found their way to me.
I hated getting her emails, and I was pretty sure this was one of them.
I shoved back my chair, crossed my tiny apartment and grabbed a bag of chips from the kitchen. I stood scowling at the offending email, crushing chips between my teeth with a satisfying sound.
At last, dutifully, I opened it – and it wasn’t what I expected at all.
Subject: Trying hard to reach you
To: Jade Whitmore
From: Theresa Whitmore
Your father and I are worried sick about you. I dont know if you’re checking this, but please, please let us know if your safe.
You won’t be in trouble if you come home. I don’t care if you’re hanging out with that girl Becky with her weird rituals, I don’t care if its boys or drugs or whatever. Just please come home.
A chill ran down my neck. So there are at least three of us. But one of us was in trouble.
Maybe in trouble. Maybe this kid ran away from home and her mom was overreacting. The creepy part was: how did this email even reach me? Did Theresa not know her own daughter’s email address? I had to write back, but I had no answers for her.
I dashed off a response to missing-Jade’s mom, saying I’m so sorry, but I don’t know anything in six different ways. Then I returned to what I was supposed to be doing: shooting and posting a new video.
First, I set my phone on silent; I’d forgotten to do that once, and never would again. Then I angled the camera so it would catch my wall hangings but not the dirty laundry on my bed, flipped on more lights, checked my hair, and put on my game face. Okay. Here we go.
“Hey, everyone! Today, let’s talk about how online search works.”
My phone flashed with a notification. Maybe missing-Jade’s family? I’d check later.
“Ever wondered how the search engines decide what you see, and what gets listed at the top? Because let me tell you, some days I’d commit murder to get Jade Whitmore’s search rankings.”
I laughed to show I was kidding about the murder thing. Mostly kidding. It was beyond annoying that famous-Jade had pushed all mentions of me down to the seventh page of search results.
I thought of the missing girl named Jade Whitmore and shivered. I’d edit that part out.
“So how does a search engine make those decisions? It’s based on this nebulous measure called reputation…”
My phone lit up again: this time, an incoming call. I frowned. Nobody except my family ever called me. Since I’d already stumbled over my lines, I checked the caller ID.
It was the Los Angeles Police Department.
Missing-Jade must really be in trouble.
The perk of being a barista is that after a really long night – say, when you’ve stayed up way too late convincing a night-duty police officer you’re not a kidnapper, then get woken up two hours early to repeat that conversation with the lead detective – on mornings like that, you can drink as much coffee as you want.
The downside is, you have to be awake enough to make coffee for other people. I’d already gotten two people’s names wrong and given a lactose-intolerant customer whole milk instead of soy. Hashtag: winning.
I was fixing a straight-up dark roast to go when my phone buzzed. There was a web alert for my name.
No, not my name. Not famous-Jade either.
My feed was full of alerts. I skimmed a story from the L.A. local news while I poured.
The kid had been missing for five days. She was a good kid, her parents said, except recently she’d gotten mixed up with witchcraft or maybe a cult with other girls at school. The police hadn’t ruled out kidnapping.
An email popped up from an unfamiliar name. “Be careful, Jade!” read the subject.
I jumped. The cup was overflowing, hot coffee spilling all over the floor and spattering my shoes.
“Oh, shit!” I dropped the pot, and it smashed to pieces. The customer waiting for his drink gave me a dirty look.
My manager had the mop in hand, and she looked ready to hit me with it. I cringed and reached to take it from her. “I’m so sorry. I’ll get this cleaned up.”
“No, I’ll clean it. You’re taking the day off. When you come back tomorrow, you’d better have your head on straight.”
“Take. The day. Off.” No argument allowed. She turned to the annoyed customer, dismissing me. “Sir, I sincerely apologize. Was that a dark roast? I’ll get it for you right away.”
Red-faced, heart pounding, I grabbed my jacket and fled.
While I waited for the bus, I pulled out my phone, unable to look away from the landslide of notifications. The ominous email sat at the top of my inbox, daring me to open it. Of course, I did.
Subject: Be careful, Jade!
To: Jade Whitmore
Jade, this is what you ought to be worried about. -S
I followed the link to a wiki page entitled “Nomiphage.” The article was short, flagged for lack of cited sources. A nomiphage (it said) was an energy-based life-form that drew power from people saying or thinking its name. Nomiphages had the power to replace people, like changelings.
I checked the page’s history. One draft, one author. Username: Serpentine.
Annoyance battled uneasiness in my chest. So this guy was trolling me over missing-Jade’s disappearance. Not only was that in unbelievably poor taste, but he couldn’t even come up with a decent conspiracy theory. Who would buy this nomiphage crap?
I fought off the urge to write back and tell him what I thought of his sense of humor. Better not to engage with the troll.
Back at home, I drew the blinds, shutting out the Seattle gloom, wishing I could shut out my thoughts so easily. I microwaved a bowl of ramen, and as I watched it turn round and round, I began to feel calmer. I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose my job, and I can deal with a troll. Nobody actually hates me.
Eating helped a little. A nap helped more. Though it felt like it took hours to fall asleep, I woke feeling fortified enough to brave social media again.
My restored courage didn’t last long. My feed was up in flames because famous-Jade’s fans had found my video and mobbed me, calling me a bitch and worse for attacking their idol. I hadn’t even attacked famous-Jade, only admitted jealousy, but that was bad enough. And of course one fan made the connection between my name and the missing girl, and called me out for insensitivity.
So everyone on the internet thought I was an asshole. Great. Fantastic.
I was afraid to check my email, but what I found there put my own problems out of my head. There were two more not-for-me emails on a theme that was beginning to feel way too familiar.
To: Jade Whitmore
From: Rob Leflen
Subject: Strike 2
You missed our appointment again this morning. I’ll be at my office until 5:30, and if you make up the meeting today, I won’t note it in your file. If you don’t, that’s strike 2 against your parole.
You know the rules. If you mess this up, I can’t help you, so don’t mess this up.
And then, more disturbingly:
To: Jade Whitmore Henshaw
From: Bill Henshaw
Subject: Where were you?
Jade, come on, we’ve talked about this. If you can’t pick the girls up from daycare, you need to TELL me. Ahead of time. I had to leave a meeting to get them, and they were waiting for an hour. That’s not fair to me or them.
Look, I know this is hard. It hasn’t been easy for me, either. But if we’re going to make this work, we need to communicate, okay?
The girls are at my house. Come get them when you can.
How many Jade Whitmores are there? I wondered. More than I’d thought. Way more than two. But more importantly: why are they all missing?
I was at work when my phone buzzed with an incoming text, number unknown:
You’re next. Check your email.
“Jade?” my manager said in a warning tone. She still had me on notice for my screw-up the previous day, but maybe I looked freaked out, because she sounded more concerned than angry.
“Sorry, I need to answer this. Can I take my break now?”
She shrugged, and I ducked into the back room, pressing my back against the cool tiles next to the walk-in fridge. Hands shaking, I pulled out my phone.
In my email, I found a flight itinerary. A ticket for one passenger, Jade Whitmore, nonstop DEN to SEA.
I lived in Seattle, and the flight was landing now.
“What. The. Fuck,” I whispered. My phone didn’t answer.
I texted back: What is this? Who the hell are you?
The response came at once.
I’m trying to help you, and you need to run.
Tell me who you are.
A pause. I could almost hear them deciding on their story.
A friend. Call me Serpentine. And if you don’t run NOW we’re all screwed. It’s coming.
Serpentine. The troll who sent me that article about made-up changeling creatures. “Well, that’s some bullshit,” I muttered.
Apparently I had a stalker, one who created wiki pages for my benefit and now had my phone number. Were all those emails about other missing Jades even real? Or was this all an elaborate prank? This guy could be using teen-Jade’s disappearance to mess with me.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket. This was not the sort of fame I wanted.
Maybe the stalker situation freaked me out a little, but a brief phone call with a bored-sounding police officer reassured me: this was just an opportunist making mischief. There was no “credible threat,” and I should go home and stop engaging with him. So that’s what I did.
My phone buzzed again as I walked down the hallway to my apartment. Another text from Serpentine.
You need to get out of town, Jade. It’s here.
I stared at the message, my heart beating too fast.
Bullshit. The police were right: this asshole was messing with me for the fun of it. I pictured a scrawny geek laughing as he trolled me from his mother’s basement a thousand miles away. No way. No one scares me away from my home.
I shoved the door open, and it slammed behind me with a satisfying, dramatic boom. “I’m not afraid,” it said, and sure enough, my apartment was empty. I tossed my purse on the bed and kicked off my shoes, pleased that I’d called his bluff.
Then my high-backed desk chair wheeled around to face me, and my stomach lurched. Someone was here.
“Hello, Jade Whitmore,” said the intruder.
Late twenties, maybe. Skinny jeans, baggy t-shirt, pierced nose. Toothpick-thin, with a short shock of curly dark hair. Skin that might have a brown tint if it ever saw light brighter than an LCD screen. A hacker would look like that. Or a vampire.
“Serpentine.” I tried to sound angry, but my voice shook. My apartment, my stalker was here in my apartment…
He laughed. “Call me that if you want, but I’ve only borrowed Serpentine’s face.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” I reached in my pocket, but my phone wasn’t there. It was in my purse. I took a tiny step toward the bed.
“I’m here for you, Jade Whitmore.”
A tongue flickered over the intruder’s lips. Too long, too pale. I shuddered.
This is the part where you run away, my brain informed me. Run and call the police back. Why aren’t you going?
I should have, I knew it, but my shoes were way over there and my purse was on the bed and how could I leave without my phone? That was all I could think: I needed my phone. My phone was my lifeline. I edged closer to the bed.
Serpentine grinned with too many teeth. Looking closer, really looking at him, other details were wrong. The writing on his t-shirt looked like some obscure computer joke, but the letters weren’t real letters. The curly hair was too solid, its gleam less like hair gel than polished stone.
And the eyes. They had the right layers and colors, except for the pupils, which weren’t there. Light passed straight through them and vanished.
“What are you?”
“Your friend Serpentine named us ‘nomiphages.’ I thought that was clever.”
Nomiphage. The changeling creatures, the ones from that email. Not a scam. Not trolling. Serpentine had tried to warn me, and I’d ignored him, and now this creature wore the hacker’s face. Not real, not real, my logical mind kept repeating. This felt like some movie starring me that would end and return me to a world where things made sense. But my lizard brain was screaming at me, overpowering logic. This made no sense, but it was totally fucking real, and I was so screwed.
I glanced at my purse, but the nomiphage sat forward with a leer, and my gaze jerked back to it.
“Nomiphage. Means name-eater. I’ve been watching you, Jade Whitmore, and you and I want the same thing.”
“What’s that?” My voice had shrunk.
It – I felt confident calling it an it now – beckoned me closer. I lunged for my purse.
“Stop that. Stay,” it said, and I froze. Oh shit. Run. Leave the phone and run! I scrambled back, groping behind me for the doorknob.
“You want the fame this other Jade Whitmore stole from you. You want people to know your name. Millions and millions of people.” It sighed, tasting the glory. I pressed back against the door. Hearing my dream from its lips made me sick. “When we devour her, all she has will be ours.”
“Yours.” A whisper.
The creature shrugged. It didn’t even get that simple gesture right; its shoulders rose jerkily, too high. How had I ever thought it was human? “Have to do these things in the proper order. You’ll be part of our triumph. It’s easiest if you cooperate.”
Its mouth stretched wide, revealing shark-like rows of teeth. Its whole body began to blur and shift like a Photoshop transformation: its flesh filled out, its skin tone turned pinker. Hair lengthened with a hiss like snakes.
It was me. The nomiphage looked like me. It settled into my shape, correcting little details as it studied me: filling out breasts, lengthening fingernails. The eyes still weren’t right.
It flowed out of the chair. I made one last, desperate attempt to run, clawing at the closed door. No good. The nomiphage surged across the space between us, towering over me, and I shrank to the floor.
Its whole body opened, coming apart to form one vast mouth, mindless and ravenous, and it swallowed me whole.
It hurt, being eaten. That shouldn’t have surprised me. Its teeth rent my body and soul, tearing me apart to extract one sweet morsel: my name.
Then it spat me out, not into my apartment, but some other place, dim and empty. When I stretched out my arms, I found nothing beneath me, only a misty vagueness. I could move, though. I felt… fine. Weird, floaty, but fine.
A horrifyingly familiar face appeared above me, and I yelped. “Leave me alone!”
“He’s trying to help you, idiot,” said a nearby voice.
“Be nice, Jade. She’s scared.”
“You think I wasn’t when I got here? And I was alone.”
The face – Serpentine. The real one? – turned back to me. “Don’t be afraid, Jade. You’re… well, safe is the wrong word, but the nomiphage won’t do any worse to you than this.”
I took deep breaths, shaking off my terror and disorientation. The nomiphage ate me. It ate Serpentine, too. That’s why he’s here.
That’s why we’re all here.
I scrambled to my feet (a weird act that involved no floor, only a shift in posture) and looked around. A mis-matched group stood around us. A teenager with dyed black hair and too much eye-makeup against her pale skin, the right age to be the missing girl. A middle-aged woman with brown skin and long dark hair, an Earth Mama type, wearing no makeup at all. A butch, tattooed woman. And more, hovering beyond. Somehow, I recognized them all, like people met at a long-ago party. Their faces had lingered in the face the nomiphage showed me, echoes of its discarded previous forms.
They all looked insubstantial, not exactly like ghosts, but not quite here either. Beyond them lay only featureless mist.
“What happened? Where are we?”
“What happened,” grumbled the tattooed woman, “is that you blew it. Someone tells you trouble’s coming down, so you walk right into it. Why’d you ignore our warnings?”
That must be the Jade Whitmore who violated her parole, which made Earth Mama the Jade who missed picking up her kids. They’d missed those meetings because they were trapped here.
And now, so was I.
“It’s been collecting us, every Jade Whitmore it can find,” said mama-Jade. “It absorbs our names and traps us here. Eventually it’ll absorb all our energies.”
“We’re being digested, like soggy popcorn kernels,” said ex-con-Jade, and I grimaced.
“So this place is…?”
“The ether. A realm of energy and thought.”
“A holding pen in the nomiphage’s home,” said teen-Jade.
“More like a bubble pressed between its world and ours, touching both, existing in neither.”
“And you’re all named Jade Whitmore?” I asked, boggled to find so many of us. My gaze lingered longest on Serpentine, questioning.
He shrugged. “My birth name. I ditched it when I transitioned, but the nomiphage is old-school. Believes every being has one true name, that your true name gives power over you, and all that.”
“Oh. Well, why us? Did it open a phone book and pick Whitmore, Jade?”
Silence. None of them would meet my gaze.
“Not exactly,” said Serpentine at last.
Teen-Jade sighed dramatically. “Fine! I did it, it’s my fault. My friends and I thought it’d be cool to try and summon a fairy. I didn’t think it’d work. But it did, and the creature ate me and took my name.”
Witchcraft isn’t real, my brain whispered, and I added it to the list of impossible things in my life.
“Irresponsible young lady,” muttered mama-Jade. “If you were in my coven, you’d never have gotten near a summoning spell without a decade of training.”
“Well, I’m not in your stupid coven, so…”
“So you got us all killed,” said ex-con-Jade. “Thank you so much.”
“Okay, never mind who started it.” I looked at Earth Mama. A real witch? “If you know about… all this stuff, can’t you get rid of it?”
“Maybe I could have before it took me, but not from here.” She shook her head. “Serpentine didn’t find me in time to warn me.”
“I did what I could,” said Serpentine. “It craves fame, so we think it’s working its way up from the least famous Jades to the most. Once I realized what was happening, I warned all the Jades I could, but I didn’t find us all in time.”
Working its way up… That sounded uncomfortably familiar.
“It said there’s only one left. The guru Jade Whitmore. What happens when it gets her?”
Serpentine’s stare chilled me. “Then it settles into her life, and it’ll absorb our essences until we no longer exist separate from it.”
“It’s on its way now,” said teen-Jade. She crouched, staring into the mist. Floating closer, I found a flat space like a window, revealing a confirmation email. “It’s got tickets to Austin. That’s her next speaking gig.”
That would be at Up and Up, the foremost idea festival in the world, the one I’d lost sleep over wishing I could speak there, or even attend. Famous-Jade was the keynote. The nomiphage would have no trouble finding her there.
It would go to the festival, wearing my face, and it wouldn’t even appreciate the irony.
“What can we do?”
“The remaining Jade could stop it,” said mama-Jade. “I think I’ve figured out how she can…not banish it, since she’s got no training, but persuade it to return home. But first she’ll have to escape being consumed.”
“I’ve tried to warn our friend, but she’s so deluged by fanmail, she’s ignoring us even worse than you did,” said Serpentine.
“Warn her?” I blinked at the confirmation email, glowing like a beacon in the mist. “Those emails and texts…you sent them from here. How does that work?”
For the first time, Serpentine cracked a smile. His teeth were reassuringly square. “That part’s easy. Think, Jade. In this place, we exist as thought.” He waved a hand and a high-backed desk chair materialized out of the mist. It had to be an illusion, but it looked as real as him. His smile broadened as he sank into it. “Our thoughts have the power of action. Our ability to affect the world outside is limited, but we can get online.”
I stared at him. “You’re kidding me. We have wifi?”
“I can’t explain it, but it works. We discovered it almost by accident, trying to warn the remaining Jades. I was surprised as anyone when it worked, and goddamn amazed when you answered my texts.”
“And then you got stuck here anyway,” muttered teen-Jade.
“It’s fitting, actually,” said mama-Jade. “Magic is about thought made manifest, where names and ideas become greater than their origin. Much like the internet.”
Suddenly, our prison felt a whole lot bigger. I grinned at Serpentine. “Think you can teach me to use it?”
“I sure can. You got an idea?”
“This is giving me a headache, and I don’t even have a real head.”
“It gets easier with practice,” Serpentine said, but I wasn’t reassured. He was ensconced in an illusory executive’s chair in front of a whole command center of illusory interfaces and feeds. I was struggling to hold one dinky window open in my head.
I dragged a video segment over to the editor, pointing with my finger like on a touch-screen, a mental aid for sending commands directly from my brain, which was…
“Damn!” My concentration wavered, and the segment flew away from my control. Serpentine snagged it before it vanished in the mist. Damn slippery controls. To manipulate them, you had to think hard, visualizing your results with a Zen master level of focus. I was not a Zen master. It looked like doing magic, but felt like trying to thread a needle with wet spaghetti.
“There’s a trick I use,” said Serpentine. “We need the visual interface as a guide to help our brains, but the interfaces you’re used to aren’t designed for… this environment.” He waved a hand. Scraps of mist broke and reformed around it. “But your thoughts are doing all the work. You can imagine whatever sort of interface will make the job easiest.”
“So I can redesign my software.” I laughed. I’d always wanted to fix the annoying quirks of my editing software. Not the greatest consolation prize, but I’d take it. I thought hard at the editor I’d called up and threw away half the buttons, shifting the layout so I could focus on one element at a time. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional. Besides, thinking about interface design was a good distraction from the subject matter of my little project.
Behind us, the other Jades were talking strategy, debating the surest way to defeat the nomiphage once Serpentine and I got famous-Jade listening. Their plan seemed refreshingly logical. The nomiphage craved fame, and it couldn’t bear to share its name with famous-Jade, because she’d always be more famous than the rest of us put together. If we could convince it that it’d never get what she had – better yet, if we could consign it to a life of obscurity – it would flee in defeat, giving up the Jade Whitmore name.
“What happens to us then?” I asked.
Mama-Jade shifted uncomfortably. “It would have no more use for us, and we’d become a burden, taking up space here. I think there’s a fair chance it will spit us back out where it found us.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
She shook her head. “This is our best chance.”
Well. At least we’re being realistic.
I took a few deep breaths, then took the segment back from Serpentine, carefully cropped it to the part I needed, and set it in place.
Exhausted but proud of my handiwork, I stretched the video wide so the others could see. My face splashed vivid against the nothingness.
That was the key to my plan: the creature was still wearing my face. Mama-Jade said it wouldn’t change until it consumed the final Jade and settled permanently into her form. We needed to put Jade’s attention on me, and this video ought to do the trick.
I hit play.
“I’m Jade Whitmore. This makes me crazy… When, ahem, a certain famous person with your name gets all the Reputation. Wish I had Jade Whitmore’s… success. I’d commit murder, Jade Whitmore. I’d murder… Jade Whitmore. Watch out.”
The screen cut to black. Serpentine slow-clapped.
“I don’t know,” said mama-Jade. “It’s awfully choppy.”
“Like the work of a deranged person,” said ex-con-Jade. “The cops will eat it up.”
“Good. Let’s get it uploaded,” said Serpentine. “Jade needs to see it early enough to pass it on to festival security.”
My channel sat open in front of me, and I selected the new video, but my hand hovered in the air.
“Something’s wrong,” I said. “There’s no button to upload it.”
“So imagine one. Your thoughts control the interface, remember?”
I tried, but… “I can’t. It doesn’t work.”
I sighed in frustration. All this effort, all this dwelling on famous-Jade and her fame and my failed ambitions, and I couldn’t figure out this last step. No matter how I glared at the interface, the button didn’t appear.
Serpentine’s gaze sharpened on me. “Do you want it to work?” I grimaced, reluctant to admit it. “What’s wrong, Jade?”
“You know, I sort of understand the nomiphage,” I said softly. “It wants what she has. I want that, too. To be known and loved by millions… It’s hard to blame it, you know?”
“Maybe,” Serpentine said. “But I doubt you actually thought about killing her to get it. I think you wanted to earn it on your own.”
“I did. I do. And if I publish this video…”
I’d titled it already. “Death Threat.” Everyone, even my fans, would think I was a deranged would-be murderer. Even if I escaped the nomiphage’s bowels, my channel would be dead, my reputation tanked. I’d be famous, but for all the wrong reasons.
“It’s me, isn’t it? My own emotions working against me, messing with the interface.”
Serpentine touched my shoulder. His hand felt cool, insubstantial as a spider’s web. “This is your plan, your choice. You don’t have to do it.”
“Do you have any better ideas to get Jade’s attention?”
And time was running short. If we did nothing, our fate was certain: dissolving into obscurity as nomiphage chow.
I shut my eyes, reached deep inside myself, and found a desire to live stronger than my reluctance to be hated. When I opened them, the button was there. I uploaded the video, and emailed a link to my nemesis.
Our only direct window on the world came through the web. We couldn’t watch Jade Whitmore’s reaction to the threat, or the police’s. But social media exploded, and we watched that.
It started on my channel, where the comments even from loyal fans ranged from bewildered to hostile. One fan sympathetically suggested that maybe I’d been kidnapped and forced to say these things. No one else gave me that much credit.
I’d posted the video on all of my accounts with an unmistakable message, tagging famous-Jade and adding the Up and Up hashtag for good measure. Within minutes, my feed was buried in more replies and mentions than I got in a year.
“We have to fan the flames, make it controversial,” said Serpentine. With a swipe of his arm, he called up more displays, and we started making trouble.
The text blurred as a dozen feeds darted past. We monitored mentions of me, famous-Jade, the Up and Up hashtag, and new hashtags as they came to life and fizzled again. Serpentine pointed out the most vicious comments, the ones sure to get reactions.
Obv @jadeexplains account is hacked. Maybe stunt by @jadewhit - best/worst stealth marketing ever?
The conspiracy theorists would jump on that. I called up a fake account and bumped it up with new hashtags to put it in front of the right eyes. And then on to the next comment, and the next. Camps began to emerge, and theories ran wild.
Shame on @jadeexplains. Her juvenile grudge hurts all women online. #jadenotjade
Suspicious much? There’s more to this story. Let @jadeexplains explain! #saveJade
They skirmished and sniped at each other, but I didn’t have many defenders until a common enemy showed up to unite them: the bigots.
Proof women should shut up: @jadeexplains. Awful videos from a crazy bitch. Someone shoot her now.
“There! Just what we need,” Serpentine muttered, while I winced. I’d gotten crap like that before (I was a woman on the internet, after all), but… not like that. He raised that tweet up, and whoosh! There went the flames, bursting into outright war between the loud sexist minority and the rest of the internet. No one seemed eager to defend me from the sexists, but they couldn’t let such hateful comments pass unchallenged, either.
I’d started a war and put famous-Jade and myself in the crossfire. It was worth it. Had to be worth it.
Had to be.
My head ached like nomiphage teeth were lodged in my skull. I rubbed my temples, but of course it didn’t help.
“We’ve done it! We’re trending. She’ll have to notice now,” said Serpentine.
“Yeah, it’s great,” I answered, but my voice quavered, too thin to be convincing. This was really happening to me. This was my actual life. My name, trending for the worst possible reason. My dream, twisted and perverted.
I reached for another post to elevate, but suddenly, all the buttons were missing. I can’t do this, I thought, and my interface broke apart, dissolving into the mist.
Serpentine glanced over, saw my wet cheeks. “Sorry. You okay?”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” I blinked hard. “This isn’t how I imagined I’d get famous, you know? I had it pretty good. Now the whole world thinks I’m trash.”
“I understand.” He didn’t condescend to remind me of why I was doing this, or sneer at me for worrying about my follower count when our lives were at risk. He touched my cheek, insubstantial fingertips wiping away an insubstantial tear. “Do you want to stop? I can monitor things for a while.”
I shook my head, surprised that I didn’t. “Thanks, but it’s better if I help. I’d rather take part in my own destruction than just let it happen.” It felt like a degree of control, even though this beast we’d unleashed had long since escaped us. “In fact…”
With a deep breath, I called my interface back and started a new message with my handle, the hashtags, and my home address. It took all my focus to enter the text. Serpentine caught my hand, and I turned to meet his bright, troubled eyes.
“You’re sure you want to do that? Doxx yourself?”
“I can’t go home after this, can I?” I stared at him, and he shook his head. He knew I was right. “And it’ll fuel the controversy.”
Before I could have second thoughts, I sent it. He sat with me while we watched the feeds blow up, both of us pinned in place by the weight of what we were doing. He shook off the mood first, nudging me in the arm. “Here, help me out. I want to start a meme. Think this looks like you?”
He floated a picture over to me: a chubby baby, hands raised like claws, snot-nosed and squinting. I couldn’t help laughing, and caught Serpentine’s sidelong smile. “It’s perfect,” I said. Then, with layers of meaning that he couldn’t miss: “Thank you.”
By morning, #saveJade was trending above the Up and Up Festival hashtag, and even the morning news shows were running with it. One Los Angeles reporter made the connection between me, famous-Jade, and the missing teenager of the same name, elevating the story from spectacle to a top headline. The Same Name Fame Game, one morning host called it – and got denounced for making light of a dangerous situation.
Jade Whitmore made no comment.
Fortunately, the nomiphage didn’t seem to follow the news. Fifteen minutes before famous-Jade’s keynote, it walked into the convention center. Glued to the feeds, we tracked it haphazardly through livestreams and hashtagged photos. The attendees all knew my face, and when they saw the nomiphage, they pointed and backed away while snapping pictures.
It seemed to lap up the attention like candy, unsuspicious of its growing fame, but I still held my breath. One glance at the massive screens all around the convention center would give away what we’d done, in which case it might retreat and corner famous-Jade later in a less public place. Don’t think about it too hard, I prayed.
Then it disappeared.
“Into the crowd, but which way?”
I pulled out crowd shots and splashed them up against the mist, and we scrutinized them for signs of the nomiphage. The back of that head, could that be it? Or that arm with the denim jacket?
My stomach sank. “If it’s been scared away…”
“I’ve got it! It’s in the ballroom.”
That room was bristling with livestreams, and Serpentine found a vantage right behind our quarry. Jade’s keynote would have been packed under normal circumstances; now it was the must-see event of the festival. The nomiphage had helped itself to a seat right up front, tearing away a strip of tape that marked the seat as reserved. Police officers armed with stunners lined the walls where fans would normally take standing room.
Jade Whitmore walked onstage.
Tall, poised, impeccably dressed, famous-Jade didn’t seem shaken by the storm that swirled around her. If you’d watched as many of her videos as I had, you might notice that she held herself straighter than usual, and the smile on her face wasn’t quite natural. But she put on an impressive front.
“Think she got your message?” ex-con-Jade asked Serpentine.
“I know someone read it. At least the cops. Whether anyone paid attention…” He shrugged.
“Good morning,” Jade began, and paused for applause. “Some of you wondered whether I’d come out this morning, in light of recent events. I spent a long time last night talking with the police and Up and Up staff, and with tightened security, we’ve decided to carry on.”
She held up her hands, a triumphant here-I-am gesture, and the crowd roared. In the corner of the video, the nomiphage leaned forward, salivating at the prospect of seizing all that adoration.
“I want to talk to you about ambition. About the power and poison of it,” said Jade. “Ambition built our civilization. From the pyramids of Egypt, to the irrigation systems of Babylon, to the first humans to walk on the moon – and soon on Mars. Ambition brought us skyscrapers and self-driving cars and the internet itself. It’s also brought us predator drones and tear gas, hamburgers cheaper than salads, drugs and identity theft. It brings out the best in us, and the worst.”
The nomiphage’s long tongue flickered across its lips.
“But ambition can be noble, or vile. It’s like a drug, and once you’re in its grip, it reinforces itself. You might set out with good ambitions – modest ones, let’s say, like running a quality blog that informs and inspires people. That’s a good thing. But when success itself becomes your ambition, you may lose sight of the good work that got you started. And none of us can be sure of recognizing when that’s happened about us.”
She’s talking about me. This talk was part of her usual rotation, but there was a reason she’d chosen this topic today. She’d tweaked it especially for me.
I couldn’t breathe. I floated in the misty ether while my rival called out my shallowness to the entire world. My death-threat video might be a desperate farce, but it had roots in the truth, and the bite of her disdain hollowed me out.
Yeah, well, I’m saving your life right now. How’s that for noble ambition?
The nomiphage hissed. Did it recognize itself in her description? Its neighbors gave it the side-eye, and from the podium, famous-Jade’s gaze fell on it. She stumbled over her well-rehearsed words.
“When we…ah… Just a moment.”
She waved over a stage-hand and switched off her mic. The crowd muttered restlessly. Famous-Jade didn’t look at the nomiphage again, but the stage-hand’s eyes went wide as she spotted it.
“Here we go…” said ex-con-Jade.
The talk resumed, but Jade’s distraction was obvious now, and the audience wasn’t listening. The police closed in on the nomiphage’s front-row seat. It lurched to its feet as the first officer reached it.
“Ma’am, I need you to come with –”
It leapt at the stage. Famous-Jade dove back with a cry. The official livestream cut out, and all around the ballroom, thousands of people rose from their chairs, angling for a view. The feed exploded with half-formed rumors, and from a stream near the front of the room, we saw Jade fall.
The nomiphage reared over her. I hoped it might grandstand like it did with me, giving the police time to move, but either it was too impatient or for once it was being smart. Its mouth widened impossibly, expanding to swallow her up. Screams overloaded the cheap mic on the camera.
A stun-gun hit it in the side, and it jerked back, not falling over, but wavering between its prey and this new threat. Its eyes narrowed. Maybe, just maybe, it realized it had made a mistake.
Three officers closed on it, stun-guns at ready. Its tongue lashed out and knocked one gun away. It rounded on the other officers, but Jade scrambled up from the floor, seized a copy of her book, and threw it. Think Big was just a skinny inspiration book, but her aim was excellent, and the nomiphage wheeled toward her. The officers stunned it again, and while it was disoriented, tackled it.
The creature was stronger than the body it wore, but not that strong. Together, the officers wrestled it to the ground. Our intrepid livestreamer climbed up on stage to get a better angle as handcuffs clamped over the nomiphage’s wrists. It hissed and writhed, but it was trapped.
Jade Whitmore stared down at the creature in fascinated horror. Serpentine started typing frantically while mama-Jade told him what to say.
“Read it, damn you,” he whispered as he hit send. Famous-Jade was safe now, but if she didn’t follow our instructions, the nomiphage would keep coming after her – and more to the point, it would never let us go. We all sighed in relief as famous-Jade pulled out her phone. “Good, now do the thing.”
She looked from the phone to the nomiphage, and back to her phone again.
Our whole plan, our salvation, rested on famous-Jade being quicker-witted than I’d been. At least she had evidence that we were telling the truth. The room was in chaos now, the audience shouting over each other and tweeting like mad, trying to discover what was happening. The official livestream flared back to life on the elevated screens, showing Jade Whitmore staring at her phone.
Then she stepped forward.
“Can I talk to her?” she asked the officer. He glanced doubtfully at his prisoner, but let her come closer. The nomiphage lay prone on the floor, held down by two muscular officers, twisting its neck at an unnatural angle to meet Jade’s gaze. On the livestream, its eyes – my eyes, warped into something inhuman – glowed with hate.
“Why did you do it?”
“What you said. Ambition. I hunger, and you have what I need.” The nomiphage grinned at her, all teeth. Famous-Jade quailed, and I could see her belief solidifying. It tried once more to lunge at her, but the officers held it fast, and famous-Jade kept her distance. “And I will have it. Now, or later, I will have your name.
“No. That’s where you’re wrong,” Jade said. She glanced down at her phone, rehearsing the words Serpentine had fed her. “You’ve blown it. You missed your chance to get me, and now you’ll spend your life in prison. You want what I have? You want my fame? While your trial lasts, you might get a taste of it. I’m sure it’ll be well publicized, considering the spectacle you’ve made.” She gestured at the crowd. “But that won’t last. They’ll find you guilty and lock you away, and soon, even your fans will forget about you.” She leaned closer, daring. “Even I will. You’ll be forgotten, and you can watch my success while you rot in obscurity. Unless you want everyone to forget you exist, Jade Whitmore, you’d better leave. Now.”
Jade saves the day, I thought. I wonder if she’ll ever know what we did for her. But if this worked, it wouldn’t matter. The nomiphage wanted to be the most famous Jade Whitmore. If it couldn’t have that, if it lost even the modest recognition it had stolen from the rest of us, then there was no point in it being Jade Whitmore.
The realization of failure struck the nomiphage with a terrible transformation. It went rigid, its face pale and cold as clay, eyes darkening to the black of a starless sky. It reared up, not at Jade but toward the ceiling high above. It shrieked.
Its wail rose, piercing and outraged and endless, like a kettle on full boil with no one home to shut it off. It blew out the speakers, drowned out every voice in the packed ballroom, and cut straight through into our pocket of ether. Pressing hands to my ears did nothing to block the sound. If I’d had eardrums in this place, they’d be bleeding now. The Jades were looking at each other. I couldn’t hear them, but sensed the meaning behind their moving lips.
“That did it?” asked ex-con-Jade.
“Let’s hope it remembers to let us go,” said Serpentine. “Hold on!”
A tear formed in the world, hovering above the stage, as black as the nomiphage’s eyes. The shriek ripped it wide, from a pinhole to a doorway, tearing the world apart. The cops fell back, and the nomiphage flowed toward the gap.
The livestreams gave out, but the shriek kept rising. I didn’t see the moment when the nomiphage vanished into its portal, couldn’t see what was on the other side, but our mist began to flow with the sound, gathering, spinning, a darkening vortex pulling us to its center. I couldn’t see the other Jades anymore, and sound became pain became being…
Hard. Floor. The floor hurt. I was in a place that had floors.
I had a body again.
I opened my eyes and found my apartment. The morning sun filtered through curtained windows, illuminating a ransacked mess. Streams of police tape blocked the door. I patted my body all over, delighted in the feel of it despite how it ached.
It worked. The nomiphage remembered. It sent us back where it found us.
A vibration startled me. I hunted for my phone, found it in my purse where I’d left it.
“Jade! You made it.” I heard the grin in Serpentine’s voice.
“Guess we all did.” That sank in, becoming real as I said it. “We’re back.”
“We sure are. But… you know what happens now?”
Now… oh. Yeah, I did.
“How long before the cops get here?”
“I wouldn’t stick around to find out.”
They must have searched my place when the death threat came to light, but they would certainly come back to look for more evidence on the would-be murderer who vanished into thin air before thousands of people. Of all the Jade Whitmores, only I would have to disappear, leaving my newly-sullied reputation behind. I’d known that, planned on it, but now that it was time, it hit me hard. I sat against the wall and took deep breaths, each one burning my lungs.
“Serpentine, what do I do? I’ve never been on the run before.” Even saying it felt ridiculous, like I’d slipped into someone else’s life.
“Fortunately, I know a few things about this. Pack light. I’ll have a bus ticket waiting for you under a fake name. Buy yourself a burner phone at the station.” He paused. “If you want, you can crash with me while you figure things out.”
“That’s…thanks. I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, I kind of owe you. You know, for sacrificing yourself to save us?” His voice turned serious. “Now get moving.”
It was easier than I expected, packing up my life. I threw some clothes and deodorant into a backpack. The police had taken my hard drive, and I allowed myself a brief moment of mourning for the loss of my work, my home, my life. All of it torched beyond recovery, with me left standing in the ashes.
I’d have to start everything over. I’d have to pick a new name, one entirely my own.
Suddenly, I smiled. I didn’t mind that one bit.
This story originally appeared in Amazing Stories.