Robert Nowall

Plant Girl, by Robert Nowall
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PLANT GIRL

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

One. My First Day As a Human

The battered old yellow school bus settled down on the hard-packed dirt road surface just outside the house. It came down on the west side. I stayed in my seat until the bus settled in, and looked out the window at the setting sun. The cloudless dark blue sky of day grew darker and many more stars began to appear. Moon Two, now a few degrees of arc from the reddish sun, showed a visible disc, a bright sunlit crescent.

It was beautiful. But my mind was on other things.

With a lurch that jerked my stomach, the bus cut its Agrav unit and came to rest. The front bus doors opened up. I unclipped my seatbelt and stood up. I lifted up the pack at my feet, slung it over my shoulder, and stepped past Sara Herold and into the aisle.

Sara held up her hand and brushed her fingertips against mine as I passed by. "We'll talk Sunday, Ginger," she said. "After church." I nodded to her and walked on, down the bus aisle.

Today was Eightday. That gave me most of the three days of the weekend before church to think up something to say...to think about what to say.

The bus was half full now. The remaining kids, boys and girls, held out their hands for slaps and brushes as I passed them by. Bernie Patrice even stood up and leaned over Paul Tremaine to get to me. "Go Ginger!" he said.

I held out my free hand for his slap while holding onto the pack. I slapped Bernie's hand, Paul's hand, every hand I could reach, moving my arm from bus side to bus side, left to right, light taps and brushes. The other kids cried encouragement to me. I did not feel encouraged.

After what seemed like ages, I reached the end of the aisle and the door, down a few steps. To my left, at the controls, was Miss Fergussen, the teacher in charge of the field trip, now doing double duty driving the bus. She caught my eye and smiled. "I'm glad everything worked out, Ginger. I sent a message to your mother about---"

"Er, my, er, mother knows about this?" I asked.

"I told her you were all right," Miss Fergussen replied. "We called her when you got lost."

"But I wasn't lost. I---" It was no good explaining. It was never any good. I let my free arm fall down at my side, and let my pack arm down, and dangled my pack a few centimeters from the bus floor. I couldn't explain, not with reality, not even with the story I was telling. "Thank you, Miss Fergussen," I said, and turned and climbed down the three steps to the ground.

When I got clear from the bus steps, the bus let out a squeal and lifted off the ground. It kicked up some wind and blew some dust around and over me. When the dust settled, a matter of seconds, I lifted my head up and looked at the sunset. It was an almost-cloudless day. Some other day, I might have appreciated it. Today I couldn't. Too much happened.

Just one car, Mom's car, was in front of the house. Phil and Don's wreck was gone, and I guessed they were, too. Neither was Dad's---he was at his job in town and wouldn't be home till after the sun was down, another hour. Mom was home from work. I worried about her.

I wondered if I should go on calling them "Mom" and "Dad"---but I didn't have anything better and I needed to call them something.

I got the front key from my jacket vest pocket. I pulled it out, along with something that looked like a small, smooth perfect-oval-shaped stone. I looked at both for a second, remembering, then slipped the oval stone back in my pocket. I waved the key in front of the door. The door opened, swinging backwards and away into the house.

I stepped through the door frame, and let the door close behind me. I kicked the dirty shoes I wore onto the large inside doormat rug, and stood in my socks for a moment. Now or never, I though. I shouted, "Hi, Mom, I'm home."

Most of the time, she would call back, "That's nice, dear," from some part of the house, and sometimes throw a "Welcome home" in as an extra.

But she fooled me. She came into the living room from the kitchen, and grabbed me and took me into her arms, pressing my face against the damp cooking apron she wore. "Ginger!" she said. "I was so worried! They called me at work and told me you were lost!"

"Miss Fergussen said they sent you a message---" I said, then coughed and forced out, "Mom! You're smothering me!"

She let go. "At least you're all right now."

"I wasn't lost," I said. "I knew where I was." I told the story of how I got separated from the group on the field trip, how I cut straight across the route the others were taking, how I went straight back to the bus. Mom listened, and made clucking sympathy noises as I talked, but said something. I ended with, "I can't help it if they thought I was lost."

"No, you can't. You know how to take care of yourself in the woods." She clucked a couple more times, then hugged me again with a hard and quick squeeze and then let me go. "But you're late. Dinner will be in a half-hour. Your brothers are off somewhere with their friends. It'll be just you and me and your father when he gets home."

That lifted a few worries off my back, but added some new ones. Mom went on. "Ginger. There's just enough time for you to clean up, and---" She bent over, her nose just over my shoulder, and sniffed the air over me. "And there's just enough time for you to take a bath before dinner. There are clean clothes in your room."

I was aware of how dirty I was and how I smelled. "Yes, Mom," I said, and turned away and climbed the stairs.

"Dinner will be at the kitchen table," she called after me.

Once I was in my room---"my" room, I thought, putting "my" in quotation marks inside my head---I closed the door and locked it. I remembered all the arguments, about privacy, two brothers in the house, and growing into a woman who needed her privacy. Yes, I remembered them. I remembered everything.

I looked around. The room was about the way it had that morning. The bed was made, now, and there was a pile of clean laundry, unfolded, in the wicker basket at the foot of the bed. In the morning the bed was unmade and dirty clothes filled the basket.

The desk, with papers and books and disks piled on either side of the computer terminal...the shelf, with a few more books and disks and some mementos I remembered Phil and Don making fun of...the dresser where the clean clothes were to go, once I folded them, after the bath and after dinner...the almost-open closet door, revealing a dark interior I knew was filled with clothes on hangers.

I felt a wave of nostalgia just looking at it all.

There was a mirror on the back of the door. The upper left corner back silvering peeled a little on the edge, but it was still good enough to check myself out. I glimpsed myself in it, and let my gaze linger. The girl who looked back at me looked the same as the one who looked out that morning, maybe a little more tired, maybe a little more messed up and dirty, maybe more somber. But they looked the same.

I took my clothes off, and hung them over the back of the desk chair. I took everything off, until I stood naked in dirty and sweaty socks.

I felt the dread of the moment in the pit of my stomach. I sat down on the chair edge, raised one foot up and crossed it on my knee, looked at the sock for a moment or two...then with great care, pulled the sock off. I looked my foot over.

There, on the sole of my foot, were about a dozen little sproutings, little white worms, none longer than a single short toe joint.

Roots.

I knew this would happen. I dreaded seeing it. They would not have been on my feet the day before---no, that was the wrong way to think of it. They would not have been on Ginger's feet the day before---the day before, my feet did not exist.

It brought home to me, again, and hard, that I was not and never had been Ginger Parker. I had all her memories up to mid-morning. I had her outward appearance. I even had the clothes she wore when she left her home that morning.

I was a plant.

I tugged at one longish root. It came off, leaving a little stub. There was no pain. It felt like a dead piece of skin just hanging on. I could feel it when I tugged it off.

I could pick them off one by one, but it wasn't necessary. I knew what to do. I reached over and felt around in my jacket pocket, for that stone Doctor Xavier gave me. It was no ordinary stone. I rubbed it, and it vibrated in my hand.

I rubbed this stone over my foot, top and bottom, for about a minute. Then I stopped to look it over. The stone ate up the roots with ease, with no pain. And, once done, the foot looked normal---I could not tell from looking where the roots had been. I gave my other foot the same treatment, then sighed. I no longer needed to draw nutrients from the soil. I did not need to process energy from the sunlight. I could digest food---my stomach was an exact copy of Ginger's stomach, down to the acid and intestinal viruses.

But old cellular habits died hard. For months, my feet would try to grow new roots when I kept my feet in damp and dank shoes and socks every day. Less often, I would begin to sprout leaves and branches from my head and hands. But they would look like bumps---like acne, maybe. I had to keep my eyes open, that's all.

I looked back in the mirror. The girl---the creature---who looked back at me, looked human. She looked like Ginger Parker. But it wasn't Ginger---I wasn't Ginger. I felt like Ginger. I remembered everything that happened up until she blacked out, right before Doctor Xavier put her on that plant---that plant that turned into me.

I sighed again, turned away, and reached into the basket of clean clothes for my bathrobe---Ginger's bathrobe. I put it on, sighed a third time, then got up and twisted the doorknob. The lock clicked open. I stepped into the hall. I needed a good shower.

#

Two. The Coming of Detective Anderson.

The shower cleaned me off, but did not wash away anything that mattered. I dressed and went downstairs to join my family---Ginger's family.

"Change of plans, Ginger!" I heard Mom call as I went down the stairs. "Big table! Dining room!"

I went into the kitchen. Dad had come home sometime while I was in the shower. He cleaned up faster than I had. He and Mom sat at opposite ends of the long table in the dining room. Mom moved fast, taking everything from the small kitchen table to the big table.

Phil and Don had shown up at some point, but did not clean up---but they must have met Mom's "clean" standard because they sat at their usual places, opposite each other next to Mom. I started to sit down at my usual place, opposite the one empty place reserved for guests-if-any.

Don crowded over a little. I did what Ginger would have done. I tried to slip in, and stuck an elbow in his ribs. "Move over," I whispered.

"Move over yourself," Don said.

Before either of us could say more, Mom said, "Children..." Don slid over a little and I was able to slip into the seat without trouble. It seemed so normal to me.

Don sniffed, then said, "You smell funny."

A cold feeling came over me, but I tried to keep it concealed. I washed and used Ginger's deodorant stick---but was there something in my smell, peculiar to me, that defied cleaning?

But it seemed best to bluff my way through it. I said, with some coldness, "Just what do you mean by that?"

"I don't know," Don replied. "I didn't mean anything by it. You just...I don't know." He shrugged. "Sorry." He turned back to the stew on his plate, picked up a tender piece with his fork, and put it in his mouth.

From across the table, Phil said, "I heard you got lost on the field trip, Ginger."

Before I could say anything, Mom said, "Your sister wasn't lost, Phillip. She just became separated from the group for a while."

"That's right," I said, keeping my story in mind. "I was never lost. I just cut straight across the route they took, and beat them back to the bus."

"Still," Dad said, "it's no small deal. I may call your teacher and speak to her about it. They should not have lost track of you."

What could I tell them? What would they say if I told them what happened? That their daughter and sister got distracted by something, got knocked out by Doctor Xavier, and got replaced by a vegetable mass that warped itself into the shape and form of their sister and daughter right down to her memories?

"Where was this field trip again?" Phil asked.

"The Big Ex-Pine Woods," I said. "It was part of our biology course, taking a field trip, studying the, er, the inter, ah, action of the Terrestrial and native plants and organisms." I hadn't done much of that on the trip, unless I counted what happened to me, what created me.

"Are you going to study that when you go off to college, dear?" Mom asked.

"I, uh, don't know." I shrugged. "College is a long way off." It seemed further away than ever right now.

"Well, there's still plenty of time to work that out," Dad said. "That reminds me. Phil..."

Dad's conversation turned to Phil and his college career---Phil needed to declare a major, but had not yet. I turned to my plate. It was beef stew, rich with lots of vegetables, an old favorite---an old favorite of Ginger's---but it didn't seem to have much flavor to me. I worried about my sense of taste as I chewed the first mouthful.

But before I could swallow, before Phil could answer Dad, the chimes on the front door rang. I looked around the table---everybody looked as startled as I was. "Who could that be at this hour?" Dad asked.

Mom swung her chair around, scraping it bit by bit on the floor carpet, until she was face-to-face with the small video screen behind her. She touched it here and there, and it glowed and flashed a yellow light. "Picture," Mom said. The screen lit up, with an image from the camera at the front door. I craned my neck to see past Don and Mom.

A man stood there, a short-but-wide man in a suit. "Who is it?" Mom asked.

The man spoke, his voice tiny and tinny. "Detective Anderson, ma'am," he said. He held up a badge to the camera. Our house computer scanned it, and a light on the corner of the screen flashed green. The badge was authentic and matched the man who stood at the door.

"Detective!" Mom said.

"Yes, ma'am. Bureau of Investigations, assigned to this continent. We received a report that your daughter was lost out in the Big Ex-Pine Woods today."

"That is true," Mom said. I felt a little red of anger flush my face---here I was, telling everyone I wasn't lost, and they weren't listening. But my anger disappeared in an instant, replaced by worry.

"May I speak to her? There are a few questions that I must ask her about her experience."

What kind of questions? I wondered. What did they suspect?

Detective Anderson went on. "If this is a bad time---"

"It is," Mom replied. "We were just sitting down to dinner."

"I just have a few questions, ma'am. I could come back in, let's say, an hour?"

Mom frowned, then smiled and said, "That will be fine. We will expect you after seven."

She smiled, but I frowned.

"Thank you, ma'am," Detective Anderson replied, and stepped out of the picture. The screen switched itself off. A moment later, we heard, faint but clear, the sound of a car taking off---we did not hear it land, but the house walls were almost soundproof and we were not listening for a car.

"It's a two-seater Divvy," Don said. "Not a new model."

"Divvy, yeah," Phil added.

"A DiVera, you mean," Dad said, to both of them.

"That's not important," Mom swung her chair around and faced me. "You don't have to worry, Ginger," she said. "You did nothing wrong."

"And your mother and I will be with you," Dad said. He then said to Mom, "Dear, do I need to change?"

He gave me a thoughtful look. "I don't see it as necessary." He turned to Phil and Don. "You boys will have to stay upstairs, though."

"Uh, Mom," Phil said, "Don and I were planning on leaving right after dinner. The car show, remember?" They both looked at Dad, then Mom, with eagerness plain in their faces.

"All right, then." Mom smiled at them. "Be back by midnight."

Both Phil and Don continued eating and were almost done. I had just started. They finished and got up and were gone before I ate much more. I picked at my stew.

"Now, Ginger," Mom said, "you don't have to be worried about this. I'm sure Detective Anderson just wants to, well, ask a few questions."

"Get the facts straight," Dad put in.

"After all, dear, you were lost---you were missing---for some time today. New Horizons is still a wild place."

"In many places." Dad nodded in agreement.

I nodded back.

"All you have to do," Dad went on, "is tell the truth."

"Now finish your stew," Mom said. I did what I could. It still didn't seem to have much taste.

The truth? How close could I come to telling it, without admitting all?

#

Three: The Return of Detective Anderson.

I got a better look at Detective Anderson, as he sat in the chair opposite mine. He was a short and stubby man, maybe a little taller than me, but much wider---wide with muscle, not fat.

He wore a ragged old tan overcoat, dirty in a couple of spots. His skin was a dark-but-not-tan color, something not seen much these days on New Horizons. I---Ginger---had met just a few people with skin that dark; there were none in church or school. I knew of a fad---Ginger knew of a fad, in the cities, where someone could be whatever skin color they wanted to be, but the kids around here weren't allowed to do it.

We sat in the living room. Mom and Dad steered Detective Anderson to the good padded chair. I caught it, but if Detective Anderson noticed, he did not mention it. He didn't settle into the chair, but sat on the edge and leaned forward, towards me.

I sat in the smaller, less-than-good, padded chair---when Ginger sat in the living room, it was on the couch now to my right. But Mom and Dad also steered me to this chair, and they sat together on the couch.

Detective Anderson took notes in an old-fashioned way, on a notepad---a pad made of paper, something not seen outside of historical dramas. He asked a number of specific questions. I told him I stepped off the path at a specimen of pine log---Ginger's last conscious memory before I awoke with her memories---and when I looked up, the rest of the kids had moved on and were nowhere in sight. Rather than find the path, I cut across country and found a new path, that took me right to the bus, where I waited for the others. "I was never lost," I said. "I don't know what they told you, but I knew where I was all the time."

"Ginger," Mom said. I knew her tone. I shouldn't lose my temper.

"That's all right, ma'am, miss," Detective Anderson said, nodding to each of us. "The first report was wrong."

Detective Anderson went on to ask me several specific questions about the route I had taken across the Big Ex-Pine Woods. This put me on tricky ground---Doctor Xavier had show me out the door partway along one path, and I walked the rest, but the first part was unknown to me.

I stuck with my story, though. I said I had a good idea of the lay of the land, and knew where the bus was parked, so I walked it, but I didn't think I could pick it out on a map.

I tried to keep all my emotions---annoyance, fear, nervousness---below the surface, but I guess they must have shown through. "It's all right, Miss Parker---may I call you Ginger?" Detective Anderson smiled, but just a little. After I nodded my approval, he went on. "Ginger, then. I promise I'm not trying to confuse you or trap you."

"We are not suggesting you are, officer," Mom said.

"The Bureau of Investigation is interested in what goes on in the Big Ex-Pine Woods, ma'am." He turned his head and faced Mom; for the moment I was ignored. "It has been fifty standard years or so since the frontier on New Horizons was declared closed. But parts of this planet are still dangerous and much is not understood."

"True," Dad said, also nodding.

"We at the B. I. are interested in reports of odd activities in some areas. Your daughter's experience fits this. We are not saying something odd or dangerous, or even illegal, has happened. We just want the facts."

But something odd and dangerous had happened. It worried me, as I watched Mom and Dad and the detective all nod to each other. Did the B. I. know anything about what happened to me...to Ginger and to me?

"I see no problem here, sir, ma'am," Detective Anderson said to my parents, then turned his head to look at me again. "Miss, if we need to, if we have to, we can take you back out to the Big Ex-Pine Woods and go over the route you took." He smiled again, at me, at Mom and Dad. "But I don't think that will be necessary."

He flipped through his pad of written notes, wrote this or that down, then asked me more questions. We covered a lot of ground, he and I, in the hour or so the interview lasted. I never---Ginger had never been through anything like that before, and it was nothing like what I expected---what she would have expected.

But he did finish. Detective Anderson rose from the chair's edge, and said, "I think I have enough, sir, ma'am, miss." Mom, Dad, and I stood up right after him. He added, "If anything more is needed, well, I'll be in touch. The B. I. thanks you for your help." He held out his hand---to me first. I shook it; he had a firm grip.

After he shook hands with Mom and Dad, Dad said, "Let me show you the way out." The door was behind the detective, but he still let Dad show him out. He made some pleasant good-bye sounds and was out the door. In less than a minute, we heard the sound of his two-seater DiVera lifting off.

"You did fine, Ginger," Mom said.

"I told what I could," I said. "All I could." I hadn't told the truth, just the story I was sticking with---the story I was stuck with.

"Still, young lady, you were fine." He always called Ginger "young lady" when he was serious. He put his arm on my shoulder. "There is nothing to worry about."

"I don't think we'll be hearing from Detective Anderson again," Mom added.

Dad hugged me and let go. "I think, now, you've had a long day. I know it's Eightday, but I don't think you'll object to not staying up late tonight. Right, Ginger?"

I was tired. That was the truth. "Right, Dad."

"Now, go up to bed." I nodded to him, then leaned up and kissed him on the cheek---just as Ginger would have. I did the same with Mom and went upstairs.

#

Four: But Sleep Won't Come

I was tired---I should have been able to sleep---but after I undressed and put on pajamas, knelt and said my prayers, and climbed into bed, I just couldn't. I just lay there.

I wondered if plant people slept at all. I felt tired, comfortable between the sheets and in Ginger's pajamas. But I didn't fall asleep. For the first time since arriving at Ginger's home, I could step outside myself and examine my assignment. It was the first time I had had time to think.

When I had been a mindless plant, before I had Ginger's memories, I was conditioned by Doctor Xavier to respond in certain ways. But I had not been told anything. Doctor Xavier gave me a brief lecture, but most of that involved getting out of the Big Ex-Pine Woods and back to the bus.

My mission was imprinted on me, somehow---I did not know how---and was clear. I was to infiltrate human society---as Ginger Parker---and wait in place for further instructions. If possible, I was to lure people of importance to the Big Ex-Pine Woods, where they could be captured and where they could in turn be mimicked by plants and sent in to society.

I wondered if Detective Anderson was important enough. He had suggested visiting the Big Ex-Pine Woods. Would a detective be a big enough catch to satisfy Doctor Xavier? Maybe if he got in touch again...

But how did I know that? As a big dumb plant, I received a good deal of pre-conditioning---it was, more or less, played into me like the complete memories of Ginger Parker.

I did not know what happened to the real Ginger Parker. I broke out in a sweat. I had taken Ginger's memories. Had I taken Ginger's life, too?

About a year ago I had seen---Ginger had seen---this old film from old Earth, about these alien pod people who grew into the forms of real people and took over their lives. Ginger didn't think much about it, but now it moved into the center of my mind and stayed.

The movie hadn't shown much of what went on---maybe it was too graphic for them. Movies of old Earth went through periods of graphic realism alternating with more subtle approaches before disappearing as an art form a century or so after it started---at least, that's what Ginger's teacher told her.

But that didn't matter. What mattered was what happened to the real Ginger.

From somewhere up out of me, the answer came. I was a copy of Ginger---but Ginger was still alive and well at the end. Doctor Xavier hadn't told me. It must be from my conditioning. I took Ginger's outward form and I took Ginger's memories. I even wore Ginger's genuine clothes. But I did not take Ginger's life.

But if Ginger was still alive...where was she?

#

Five: Tossing and Turning.

I sat up, gasping for breath, wide awake. The dream---it seemed so real. It involved Ginger---no, it involved me.

But the haze descended on me as I slowed my breath down. By the time my breathing went back to normal, minutes later, I knew it involved Ginger in some way, but I did not, could not, remember what it had been about.

I remembered I had been hot---I woke up drenched in sweat. My arms were tired from holding them up---or were they tied up over my head? My arms ached with the memory.

I wondered again where Ginger was. Did I have even the tiniest clue? I calmed down and examined my memories---my own memories, the ones that began with me, and not the ones that were copied from Ginger.

I woke up on a thin cold mattress without sheets or blankets. I was naked and rolled up in the fetal position. Doctor Xavier crouched next to me. He spoke and I listened. I knew at once---my conditioning again?---what happened. I knew who I was---and I knew who I was not, which was more important.

I rolled out of my position and sat on the edge of the small bare mattress. I looked around. I was in a single concrete-brick-walled room, bare of any furniture except that mattress. Bright light came from one large overhead fixture. There was a doorway, no more than a frame in the wall, leading out, and it was too dark to see beyond that.

I knew at once who he was, his name, and his position of authority over me. I knew how I knew, as well. He was my Master and Overlord, he was in charge, what he said mattered and what he wanted was the way it would be. I didn't like the way he looked at me. I raised my knees up and hugged my arms across my chest.

Over one arm, he carried some clothes. He held a pair of boots in one hand. I recognized the clothes. They were what Ginger had worn.

When he realized I was alert and aware of him, he smiled. "I am Doctor Xavier. Put these on, quick, now." He handed me the clothes.

They were all there, underwear, shirt and pants, socks, even the things in Ginger's pockets. I dressed as fast as I could. The clothes fit.

The last thing I put on was Ginger's wristwatch. I glanced at it. A little more than an hour had passed since Ginger last glanced at it. Did it take that little time?

My conditioning told me much, but not everything. I was scared, frightened. And I knew I was under Doctor Xavier's orders, but I did not know what they would be.

Once I was dressed, without prompting, I turned around and let Doctor Xavier look at me. He nodded approval, then said, "There's not much time. You remember everything?"

"I do, sir. I remember everything I, er, everything Ginger Parker remembered, right up until---"

"Never mind, it's not important right now." He hesitated, then added, "You remember where the bus is?"

"Yes, sir, I do, sir," I said, with some quiver of nervous in my voice. "But I don't know where I am."

"Oh, for...you go out this door---" He pointed to the door frame. "Follow the tunnel to the right. Once you are outside, you will find a trail. Follow that and within half an hour you will cross a trail you will know. Follow it to the bus." He looked at me. "You know what you are to do?" he asked.

"Go back. Be Ginger Parker. Wait for instructions." I felt like a robot saying it.

Doctor Xavier grinned. "Go, then. You can follow the trail, but if you can figure out the lay of the land, you can cut across on other paths and make better time." He handed me the shaving stone---I knew what it was for---and said, "They know you're missing. They will search for you. When they find you, tell them you got separated from the group but didn't have any trouble finding your way."

"Sir?"

"You work out the details. I have no more time to spare. Go now."

"But how will I get in touch with you?"

"You don't. When I need you I will be in touch." He grimaced at me---a smile?---and pointed, out the door. "Now go!"

I obeyed. He stayed back in the room. The tunnel outside was dark. I risked a look back. He stepped away from the door, out of my sight.

The tunnel went on before ending in a narrow crack through which brilliant sunlight poured. It was just large enough for me to squeeze through and I was outside.

I knew where I was right away, and had the lay of the land as well, even though I wasn't near where Doctor Xavier said I would. The path Doctor Xavier spoke of was right there, and I knew I could reach the bus within an hour if I hiked hard.

I looked back over my shoulder as I took my first steps outside. The entrance I had come out of---almost invisible even from a few steps away. But I knew where it was, and I was sure I could find it again, if I had to.

Would I have to?

#

All this played out in my head as I lay in Ginger's bed, pretending to be Ginger, knowing I wasn't. Unanswered questions filled my head. Who was Doctor Xavier? What were his plans? Why would somebody want to substitute plant people like me for the real thing?

It drifted up out of me---it must have been in my conditioning---but I knew Doctor Xavier had an ultimate goal to supplant humanity and replace them with plant people. It shocked me. I didn't know what to make of it---I didn't even know if it were possible.

I might have been a plant person myself, but it didn't fill me with self-confidence. I was more Ginger Parker than anything else, and that meant I was a teenaged girl caught up in something strange, something frightening.

#

Six: Call for Ginger Parker.

I happened to be in the kitchen when the call came in. It was Nineday mid-afternoon, the day after things happened. Dad was out in the fields and Mom was out of the house in the garden. Phil and Don were off in their car for the day. I listened to the answering machine's neutral voice as it picked up and spoke. "Please leave a message at the tone," followed by the beeping tone.

"This is Detective Anderson," he said. No picture built up, but I recognized the voice right away. "If it's at all possible, I would like to talk to all of you again about what happened. There are some points I need to resolve---"

I, or rather Ginger, wasn't supposed to answer the phone---but I thought I had better. I hit a button and said, "This is Ginger, sir. Can I help you?"

"Ginger? Hello, Ginger. I would rather talk with your mother and father---"

"I can get Mom right away," I said.

"---but there's no harm in letting you know. I need to check certain details of your story. For that, I need to take a little trip with you, up to the Big Ex-Pine Woods, so we can go over the ground together."

"Up to..." I shook my head. "But why?"

"Um, let's just say there are a few unanswered questions. but I just need to check out a few things for myself, before I file my final report. I wouldn't expect trouble over it, Ginger."

He wasn't saying much. But just then Mom came in, just in time to hear Detective Anderson's last sentence. I looked at her, then stepped away from the phone as Mom stepped up to it. I stayed nearby and listened with intensity.

"I heard that, Detective Anderson," Mom said. "This is Ginger's mother. You need to check out something, I gather?"

"I do, ma'am," Detective Anderson replied, and repeated what he told me. "Is your husband at home?"

"Not right now, but he will be in the evening. This trip...when do you want us to go?"

"Oh, not you our your husband, ma'am," he said, with some haste. "Just your daughter."

"Ginger? Well..." As she hesitated and looked at me, I felt dry in the throat. She said, "Well, I would have to talk it over with my husband first."

"I could call you back in the evening."

Mom smiled. "That would be better, sir."

"Good bye, till then." Detective Anderson disconnected.

Mom turned to face me. Her expression was...to my surprise it was filled with concern. I looked down at my feet, at Ginger's shoes on them. "I'm sorry, Mom," I said.

"Now, Ginger, I'm not mad at you. The phone was ringing and it needed to be answered."

"Uh, will I have to go with Detective Anderson?"

"That's for me and your father to discuss with him," Mom replied. "Now go and play, dear."

#

Seven: An Evening Promise

I tried to position myself where I could hear Mom and Dad talk on the phone with Detective Anderson. But they shooed me out and saw to it that I was in my room---Ginger's room---before the conversation even began. I could hear nothing.

I strained at the door, my ear pressed against it, just trying to hear. But nothing came through. I wondered if I, a reconstituted plant, had any kind of superpowers, like super-hearing, that would let me eavesdrop. But I had the senses Ginger had, or would have had---everything a normal fifteen-standard-year-old girl on New Horizons would have.

But I heard them come up the stairs and knock on my door. They spoke in tones too low for me to hear until the knock. "Ginger?" Dad called out. "Are you there?"

I looked down at myself. I wore a bathrobe over a clean pair of pajamas. My feet were bare---I had already used the shaving stone to remove the roots, though there weren't as many and they weren't as long as they had been the day before.

"Just a second," I called, and put my hand on the knob to unlock the door. I knew they could unlock it from the other side with a screwdriver, even a small stick. But my parents respected my privacy---I mean, Ginger's parents respected Ginger's privacy. I reminded myself, once again, I was a stranger to them---

"Ginger?"

"Just a second," I said again, and twisted the knob and pulled the door open. Dad came in, followed by Mom. I sat down on the bed, against the pillows, crossing one leg over the other, one foot up on the thigh. One bare foot. For a moment, I worried about visible roots, but I knew I was safe. There were no roots to see.

Mom sat down on the far edge of the bed, turned towards me. Dad took the desk chair, turning it around so he leaned forward against the back.

"Did you talk to Detective Anderson?" I asked.

"We did." Dad smiled at me. "We've decided to let you go with him to the Big Ex-Pine Woods."

"Oh?" In my mind, I shrugged. "When?"

"Tomorrow."

Tomorrow was Sunday. "But what about church?"

"He'll pick you up right after church."

"After church?" I said. "You mean, without going home first?"

"Well, uh..." Dad looked confused for a moment---had I stumped him, or had he just not understood what Detective Anderson wanted?

Mom just smiled at Dad, then back at me. "He'll pick you up at ten, dear, right at church. Wear comfortable clothes."

"To church?" I hesitated, then said, "Mom, I'm a little worried."

Dad, recovering some of his composure, said, "There's no need to be. Just tell the truth, just as you have been, when the detective talks to you."

The little he knew, I thought. I said, aloud, "Yes, Dad."

"Remember, the police are here to help. They are not here to scare you."

"Yes, Dad."

Mom stood up, as, a moment later, did Dad. "Now I think you had better get a good night of sleep," Mom said. "Detective Anderson said he might keep you out until evening."

They left, Dad after Mom. I got up, closed the door, but did not lock it. I put my ear up against the door and listened to their conversation. I could hear this one, at least for a while.

"I'm still not sure, Mary," Dad said.

"Now, Ron," Mom said to him, her tone a lecture. "You read the report on Detective Anderson. You even spoke with Captain Cooper. Detective Anderson is a fine officer and your daughter will be safe in his hands."
"Still..." They stepped away and I couldn't hear them. I locked the door, then returned to the bed, lay down on it, turned out the light, and closed my eyes and thought.

Some of my conditioning from Doctor Xavier floated up. Detective Anderson would be a good catch. A police detective with the Bureau of Investigation would be a good prospect for replacement. I would be doing the right thing.

But why didn't it feel right?

#

Eight: Sunday's Child

I stood outside the church with the rest of my Sunday School class. We spread out over a good-sized area. We spent most of our time watching the adults come out from the church now that services were done. Everybody was in their Sunday best clothes, the men in their finest dark suits and the women in fine plain dresses. We children stood around, uncomfortable in good clothes.

Everybody but me. I wore jeans and a T-shirt and comfortable boots. They were good fits. They were Ginger's---I did not diverge enough to need new clothes.

But they were poor choices for church. I knew Detective Anderson would be picking me up in a few minutes, and I needed to be ready; I couldn't change. But I could hear the whispers, feel the stares. I gathered both Dad and Mom, and Detective Anderson as well, had called and spoken to the priest and the teacher and I was fine there. But everybody else---they whispered behind my back and stared when they thought I couldn't see.

Sara Harold stood next to me---she wore a good but somber-black dress which went up to her neck and down to mid-calf, just what you were supposed to wear to church---and tried to pump me for information. I could not give much---I didn't want to give much. She said, "It's something, getting to wear regular clothes to church."

I grunted a non-committal affirmative.

"I can't believe you get to go to the Big Ex-Pine Woods again, Ginger."

"I wish people wouldn't make a big deal out of it," I said, and found myself believing it. I wished it were true.

My parents---Ginger's parents---Mom and Dad---came out together just about then. Phil and Don were right behind them, chatting to a couple of older girls---they were beyond Sunday school, having been confirmed about two years ago, both of them at once. I remembered the ceremony, remembered looking forward to the day I was confirmed---but reminded myself that I had not been there.

The priest followed close behind. He spoke to Mom and Dad, then looked at me. I blushed and looked down at the toes of my boots. When I glanced up I saw he and Mom and Dad, all three of them, looked over the crowd, up the dirt road that lead away from the church to the main road.

I looked where they looked---and saw Detective Anderson, standing by his car, waiting. He looked over the crowd, towards me---I ducked back into the crowd of kids, and his glance passed me by. Instead, he spotted Mom and Dad and came over to them.

"Is that the detective, Ginger?" Sara Herold asked.

"That's him," I said, and sighed.

"Ginger? You don't want to do this?" Her voice sounded surprised, though why she would be, I couldn't understand.

I sighed again. "I've had enough of the Big Ex-Pine Woods."

"Once lost, twice shy." Sara smiled.

"I wasn't lost. And I wasn't in any trouble---I mean I never---" It got harder to keep the story straight each time I opened my mouth. I stumbled over my own words.

Sara was about to say something else, but just then Mom called out to me. "Ginger? Ginger!" I looked. Detective Anderson was finished talking with Mom and Dad and the priest. The priest moved away from them to speak with someone else---Phil and Don were nowhere in sight.

"Oops, gotta go," I said to Sara Herold.

"See you in school tomorrow, then."

"I hope so."

As I approached I saw the priest come back. I did not know him well. Father Castle---he was almost brand-new to this parish, though he had was about the same age as Father Lodge, who had just retired. I was relieved that, thanks to circumstances, I wouldn't have to confess to him or to anyone today---what could I say? Not the truth.

Father Castle said, "Well, Ginger, under the circumstances, we can excuse your informality this week. Next week, though..."
I didn't speak, but Detective Anderson did. "I'm sorry to be a disruption," he said, as much to me as to Mom and Dad and Father Castle. "But I think we can wrap this up and put it behind us by the end of the day."

"From what your parents and this gentleman have told me," Father Castle said, "it's just a matter of a few points."

I suppressed a sigh. "I suppose we should go, then."

Detective Anderson nodded, to me, then to Mom and Dad and the priest. Father Castle moved off to tend to other parishioners, while Mom and Dad walked beside me to Detective Anderson's two-seat DiVera. It was almost an antique, dented and rusted. There were no police or B. I. markings on it.

But the car was running. They helped me get in---I didn't need the help, but let them do so---and then helped me fasten my seatbelt and harness. They then stood back as Detective Anderson got in.

Through the window---the top of the car was a big plastic bubble---I watched Mom and Dad. They waved, as Detective Anderson tugged on the wheel and the car lifted into the air. I watched them look up and wave as they dwindled in my sight. The car was in the stratosphere in seconds.

When I couldn't see them any more, I turned my head and looked at Detective Anderson. He touched the control board---putting the car on autopilot, I knew---then turned to face me. "It's a five minute jump," he said. "Don't be scared."

"I'm not scared."

"I mean about this investigation. You are not accused of any wrong doing. This is just something to tie up a few loose ends. It will be over soon and you and your parents and friends can forget the whole thing."

I wished it were that easy. Showing up at church in regular clothes would get me talked about for weeks if not months.

Then there was the other issue. Detective Anderson didn't know about that---or did he? I looked at him. "Yes, sir," I said.

#

Nine: The House of Garth

The car grounded near a building I hadn't seen before. It looked like one of those old enormous plantation houses from the days right after First Landing. I remembered the lecture I listened to when I first---that Ginger heard, when she first arrived at the Big Ex-Pine Woods with the group.

The Big Ex-Pine Woods stood at the edge of settled area, and this tract of land was seeded with mutated Earth pine---hence the name---but almost all the pines died out. Now the area was transforming itself, not back to the original wilderness, but to a kind of second-growth compromise area, with many species from both Earth and New Horizons

The forest stretched around and past the house. But the area right around the house was clear---not a lawn, but a hard-packed dirt landing field. Detective Anderson guided the car down and grounded right in front of the big house. He left the car motor and Agrav unit running.

A man waited---for us?---standing just off the porch. Once the car settled on the ground, he came up to the car. Detective Anderson popped the door on his side open, then unbuckled himself from his harness. I started to unbuckle, too, but Detective Anderson, in mid-climb-out, stopped himself and said to me, "No, no, Ginger, you wait here. This is Mister Garth. He's the Forest Warden for the Big Ex-Pine Woods. I need to talk to him before we go on."

I settled in. They were close enough to the car that I heard every word through the open driver's side door. I looked Mister Garth over. He stirred no memories, neither mine nor Ginger's.

"That is the missing girl from the Eightday school class?" Mister Garth asked.

"The same."

"I don't understand this, Detective, ah..."

"Anderson, sir. Detective Anderson. I'm sorry. It's just something the front office wants cleared up before we close the case. It should take just this one day. And I don't think we'll need to bother you again." Detective Anderson looked into the forest. "You have the information I asked for?"

"Yes." He handed Detective Anderson a card. "This is where she went missing. And I have the other information." He handed over another card. "Nobody but me has set foot in that precise part of the woods in over a year---nobody with official status, that is. Our security fence is not foolproof."

"I was told that. I'll look it over later." He pocketed the second card, but kept the first one in his hand. "Will you need me to check with you when we leave?"

"A voice or text message will be fine."

"Thank you, then, sir. You've been helpful." Detective Anderson nodded to him, then stepped back and climbed into the car. Mister Garth backed away, but stayed nearby, watching.

Once Detective Anderson closed the door and buckled in, he slipped the card into a slot on the dashboard. The board screen lit up and a map appeared. The car lifted into the air.

"I heard what you said," I said.

"Eh? What's that, Ginger?"

"Your talk with Mister Garth." I hesitated, then said, "I just want to say that I wasn't lost. I knew where I was every moment."

"Yes, of course, you're right," he said. "And I'm sorry. It's just a convenient kind of shorthand way to refer to it. Besides---" He smiled. "What do I know? What do they know? We weren't there, none of us. You were. You know what happened."

I knew what happened...

#

Ten: Deep in the Heart of the Big Ex-Pine Woods

The car grounded in a clearing. I recognized it. The clearing was where I---where Ginger had stopped to admire a plant, heard a noise---and been lured off from the group.

The clearing was dominated by a big tree, tall and dark-barked, high leaves putting most of the clearing in semi-shadow. These enormous roots branched out from the tree---they seemed to snuffle over the ground they lay on. I---that is, Ginger---took it for a rare native plant she hadn't seen before, but the guide, without prompting, told everybody it was of native Earth stock, something called a Moreton's Bay Fig Tree. I---Ginger---spent some time admiring it, while the group started to move on.

Detective Anderson cut the motor and the Agrav unit. My stomach lurched as the artificial gravity cut out, then settled. The car doors popped open, both of them. With a gesture, Detective Anderson told me to climb out. I unbuckled and did so, and he did the same. He locked the car doors. The car beeped and he pocketed his keys.

Then he turned to me. "Now, Ginger," he said. "This was where you were separated from the group?"

"Uh...yes. Right here."

"You were here when the group moved on?"

"Yes. I didn't realize---I mean, I didn't see them go on. I heard a noise, looked towards it, and when I looked back they were gone."

He nodded---I had told him that before. "And which way did you go?"

I pointed. "Up that way." There was a kind of path between the trees at that point. It led to the east. "I thought they had gone that way, but I was almost a half kilometer away before I knew they hadn't."
"Well, then, Ginger, let's walk that way. We'll see what there is to see, and if I think of any questions to ask you, I'll ask them."

I nodded. My boots---Ginger's boots---were comfortable, more so than the shoes she, and then I, had worn that day. They were a perfect fit, good for hiking or just a walk in the woods like this. I saw Detective Anderson wore some comfortable and broken-in shoes, suitable more for city streets than cross-country hiking---or, maybe he just wore comfortable shoes all day long.

There were just a few paths. I followed the trail Ginger took. I walked ahead, as Detective Anderson told me to, but every once in a while took looks back to see him following me.

The land ran down in a gentle slope, and even without paths, there was plenty of room for us to pass between the trees. The shrubs here and there prevented nothing. I looked at the trees. In this part of the forest, the pines held their own . Native growths popped up here and there, few and far between.

"This is the way you went, Ginger?" Detective Anderson asked.

"Uhh...yes, yes."

I slipped around a largish bush. Detective Anderson kept talking even though I was out of sight for a moment. "Now, that's one question I had in mind. Why this way?"

I stopped. Detective Anderson almost bumped into me, but stopped short. I turned around and said, "I don't understand."

"Why did you come this particular way, and not some other way?"

I shrugged. "I dunno. I think it just seemed the way to go."

"Well, let's see. Could you show me the exact spot where you realized you had, er...sorry, Ginger, where you realized you lost the group."

I appreciated his concern for my feelings. I said, "Oh, uh, a ways back, not far."

He smiled. "Let's go back. I'm sorry again. I should have brought this up when we left the clearing."

We turned around and retraced our steps---our footprints still visible in the damp dirt of the forest floor---and it didn't take long to get back, even though the route was uphill now. The point in question where I---where Ginger knew she was alone, was just past the edge of the clearing.

We stood for a moment before Detective Anderson spoke. "Now, Ginger. I know your group moved off that way---" He pointed to the north, more or less at right angles to the path we stood on now. "You didn't see any signs?"

"Signs?"

"Well, echoing voices, footprints like these, broken branches. Some sign that your group had passed that way."

"I didn't think of it, sir. I realized I was alone, and I knew the bus was over that way---" I pointed, in the direction we had just gone down and come back. "I knew I could find the bus just by striking out on my own across the country."

"Weren't you scared?"

"Scared?" Was I scared---had Ginger been scared? I said, "I don't remember."

"Mmm-hmm." Detective Anderson made a note in his little paper notebook, then said, "Well, let's move off that way, the way you went, and follow your trail a little longer."

#

Eleven: A Walk in the Woods.

The point where Ginger's memory ended---where Doctor Xavier had found her and taken her away---was about three kilometers away. The point where I---me, and not Ginger---had left Doctor Xavier's cave tunnels was about a kilometer further north from that. I did not know just how they connected, how Ginger got to a point where I-the-plant stole her identity, but I knew there must be some connection.

Now the woods ran to almost all native growth. It looked like the struggle between them and the pines had been recent; there were fallen trees and natural-looking stumps all around. No one had cleared this land.

I more or less kept to the route Ginger had taken. Sometimes, I spotted footprints, a few days old. Ginger's footprints. If Detective Anderson saw them, he gave no sign. When I glanced back, he was always two or three paces behind, his notebook in his hand, his eyes on me.

I sighed. It was very hard to tell where Ginger left off and I began. The footprints were the same size. If I had worn the same shoes they would have been an exact match. I wondered what happened to Ginger---

---the pain was more than she could bear---her raised arms could stand no more, but she couldn't put them down, couldn't even move them---her feet, they were being carved up with a thousand tiny hot knives---

I gasped and stumbled. Detective Anderson was at my side. He grabbed my arm, kept me from falling flat on my face. I took a deep breath, and said, in a shaky and almost sobbing voice, "Sorry...sorry..." As I said it, I realized I wasn't speaking to Detective Anderson, I was speaking to Ginger.

"Ginger?" Detective Anderson asked. "Are you all right? Did you trip on something?"

"I---" I took another deep breath, and came back to myself. Whatever it was. whatever hit me, was gone. I said, "I'm all right. Can I sit down somewhere a moment?"

We both looked around. Detective Anderson pointed. A few meters away lay a big fallen log, a pine tree that lost the battle with the native growth, but left a bark-stripped carcass behind. Detective Anderson helped me to it, his hands holding my arm, gentle but firm. When we reached it, I sat down, and he sat down next to me.

For a minute or so, my breath was still shaky. "Are you sure you're all right, Ginger?" Detective Anderson asked.

"I'm fine," I said. "Just a little rest." I concentrated on trying to get my breath. And I didn't understand what had happened. I had thought of Ginger---

---the pain!---

I gasped and started to doubled over, then shoved the memories away with a mental push. I might have fallen over, except Detective Anderson still had his hands on my arm, and held me up.

After a moment or two, Detective Anderson said, "I know this is hard, Ginger, but, believe me, I have to have you go through this."

I nodded agreement, not trusting myself to talk. In the course of the next couple minutes, I got my breathing under control. I said, "I'm ready. We can go now."

"We can stay here longer, if you like."

I shook my head. We got to our feet and moved on. I tried not to think of the strange thoughts that popped into my head, but I could feel them at the fringe.

#

Eleven: Coeruleriseas Compactucadus

I took a step off the path Ginger had taken. It pushed into a little clearing and, at the moment, looked a little easier than the original.

But in the clearing, I saw about a half dozen of these bluish-tinged plants. They were squat, like a barrel, each a meter or so high and just as wide, with blurred bluish-pinkish stripes running straight up the sides. Each plant had a growth on top, that looked like a tiny old-fashioned chef's hat. I couldn't mistake them for a native plant, just on their appearance alone. They looked half-plant-half-mushroom, like so many plants of native stock. I never---Ginger had never seen anything quite like them before, and not while hiking around on Eightday---

Doctor Xavier's implanted information came to the front. It obliterated me for a split second, then receded until I was myself again. I knew. These were the plants that could mimic humans and animals if they fell into them. A short time ago, I had been one of them. Deaf, dumb, and blind, no memory, no history.

I looked back. If Detective Anderson stepped too close to one of them---

But just then Detective Anderson put his hand on my shoulder. "Careful!" he said. "Don't go any closer! Those plants are dangerous!" He spoke in a commanding tone. I took a step back as he pulled on my shoulder.

"I don't understand," I said, and I didn't.

"They're compactocadus coeruleoroseus," he said, his voice returning to the tone I had gotten used to.

"Coru...cor...what?"

"It's just a fancy corrupt Latin scientific name that means 'blue-pink squat barrel.' They don't have a common name, as far as I know. Not even a good Latin one." He smiled. "I would not think you had ever seen one. They grow in odd spots and are pretty rare. But they are dangerous." He stopped, then asked, "You've never seen one before, have you, Ginger?"

I took a second to answer, but I needed it to order my thoughts. I said, "No, never. I didn't go, er, quite this way. I've never been to this clearing before."

That was the truth---I had been one of the plants, but I had never seen one---when I first opened my eyes I was already Ginger in appearance, and there were no plants around. What information I had came from Doctor Xavier's conditioning.

Detective Anderson let go of my shoulder, and studied the plants, lost in thought. Now other suspicions were forming in my mind. He did know about these plants. Just what did he know? And what did he suspect?---about them?---about me?

I hesitated to disturb him, and let the silence linger for a while. After some time passed, I said, "But, sir, why are they dangerous?"

"Eh? Why?" He shrugged. "Well, I'd rather not go into detail. Let me just say they are dangerous, Ginger, very dangerous. If you see one again, keep your distance from it at all cost. Never touch it."

"Poisonous?" I asked, thinking it best to throw the conversation in another direction.

He didn't answer. Instead he took out his paper notebook again and made a note. After that he said, "The B. I. would appreciate it, Ginger, if you did not mention this to anyone, ever. Not your friends, not your family."

Again, his tone shifted---as if he expected to be obeyed. I said, in a hushed voice, "These plants are secret?"

"Well, not that secret..." Detective Anderson began, and, for once, he looked a little uncomfortable at what he was saying. "Let me just say the government doesn't like to have them talked about." From some hidden reserve he pulled back to his normal self-confident tone. "Let's just step away from them right now, and go on. You say you didn't take this path? Then let's find the path you took."

We backed out of the clearing. I saw one plant---closest to Detective Anderson---vibrate and lean a little towards him before it settled down. I knew what it was trying to do. It wanted to touch Detective Anderson, to try to establish a link with him, then to process his memory and physical form and create a duplicate. It was instinctive, no conscious thought was involved. The plants---compactocadus coeruleoroseus---were mindless.

As I walked with Detective Anderson back the way we came, I wondered about these plants. I knew Doctor Xavier wanted me to lure people like Detective Anderson into the Big Ex-Pine Woods, to be copied by these plants, as I had been---as Ginger had been.

But I didn't know anything about these particular plants. Ginger's memories ended with her passing into unconsciousness---I did not know from what. My memories began with my waking up. I knew all about the plants---but I never saw one before just now and did not even know that compactocadus coeruleoroseus.

I knew too much in one way, and too little in another.

I did not even have memories of myself as a plant---they had no brains to speak of and no eyes to see or ears to hear. What brain I had was a copy.

So I was right to tell Detective Anderson I had never seen them before. I told the truth. And it came to me what I needed to do. I must take Detective Anderson to Doctor Xavier, so Doctor Xavier himself could decide what to do.

We made it back to the trail. I found Ginger's trail, up a small rise, and started up along it. Detective Anderson said, "Hold up a moment, Ginger. I have a few questions."

He indicated two fallen tree trunks, native trees this time. I sat down on one, and he sat down on the other, opposite me. He said, "Now, Ginger, let me clear this up, for all our sakes."

"If it's about those plants---" I said, and then stopped myself and said, "You didn't want me to talk about them."

"I did say that, didn't I?" He smiled and said, "Well, I do have a few questions for you about them, so it's all right to talk right now."

"What did you call them again?"

Still smiling, he said, "compactocadus coeruleoroseus. You're certain you never saw one before?"

"No, never."

"Never heard a description or seen a picture?"

I hesitated, licked my lips, then shrugged. "Not that I recall." It was as truthful as I could be---which, I knew, in the pit of my stomach, all added up to a big lie, however many truths were in it.

It was contemptible and I was finding myself contemptible. I was just a kid, a fifteen-year-old girl, being forced to lie---no, I wasn't even that, I was a plant who had stolen the memories of a fifteen-year-old girl. I was just a few days old. Ginger was the fifteen-year-old---I was a plant in one sense and a plant in another---

I got another image in my mind's eye---Ginger. She had opened her eyes a little and it wasn't just a feel, now---I could see it, almost as clear as if I were there. She was in a big room somewhere, some kind of greenhouse. Her arms were over her head and pinned up and her feet were in some cool dark dirt.

She was alive. It wasn't just a vision or a dream. Ginger Parker was alive---and I hated myself for not being her.

Detective Anderson went on.

"Well, Ginger---"

"Don't call me that."

"Er, what?"

"Don't call me by that name." I took a breath, a deep breath, and said, "I'm not Ginger."

Detective Anderson reached into a pocket of his coat---I cringed, thinking for a moment that he was going to shoot me---but he pulled out a little gizmo, a small flat square box with a lit screen---I couldn't see anything on the screen, just pure white light. Detective Anderson pressed a button on the box and tossed it onto the ground right in front of us.

The gizmo grew, or spat out, four antennae from each corner, stretching out about the length of one of Detective Anderson's large feet. It hummed---then let out a sharp too-high beep! that I could feel in my skull---then was silent.

The forest noise deadened and fell silent. Now it sounded like we were inside some kind of giant metal can with our voices echoing off the sides.

"WE can talk now," Detective Anderson said. "Someone might have a directional microphone on us. For what we have to say, I think it would be better if nobody else heard."

I gaped at him. "You knew?"

He smiled a little. "I knew."

"But---well, how?"

He sighed. "New-made plant people have this, well, this certain kind of smell. It lasts just a few weeks, but it's distinct if you know what to look for. And I know." He nodded. "When I met you, I smelled that smell."

I didn't know what to say. Detective Anderson went on. "Now, Ginger---you won't mind if I go on calling you Ginger, will you? No?" When I didn't answer, he said, "Well, we've known about these plants, these compactocadus coeruleoroseus, for centuries. And the, er, effect. You are not the first to stumble into one---stumble out of one, I mean."

"Uh...no. No, I guess I wasn't." Some more of my world fell into itself. I suppressed a sniffle---I felt I was about to break down and crying. "I, uh, don't know what to say."

"It happens. I get these cases every so often. When Ginger---the original Ginger, I mean---went missing, the report set off certain alarm bells back at headquarters. Most of the time, nothing comes of it. compactocadus coeruleoroseus is very rare. But every few years---" He shrugged. "It happens."

"It happens," I repeated. "But what happens to me?"

"Let me ask you a few questions first. Do you know where the real Ginger Parker is right now?"

"Somewhere up ahead," I said, and pointed. "She's in a greenhouse or something, being turned into a plant." I felt surprise as I said it---how did I know?

"You're sure---excuse me, did you say she's being turned into a plant?" For the first time since I revealed myself, he seemed surprised. But he soon suppressed it. "All right, then, suppose you tell me your story, your whole story, from the beginning. Try not to leave anything out."

I told him everything I could think of. Doctor Xavier, the conditioning, everything I could think of. Detective Anderson interrupted me a couple of times to ask questions.

"So you're supposed to lure people to the Big Ex-Pine Woods so they can be converted into plant people," Detective Anderson said when I was more-or-less done. He had his notebook out but made no notes in it. "You didn't do a very good job. You could have pushed me into one of those plants back there."

"It didn't occur to me."

"Besides," he went on, "they might not be---conditioned, you said? That does represent something new. Now, when this happens, the plant person will think he or she is the person whose memories and appearance have been copied. It can be quite a job getting them to think otherwise." He looked down at me, as if he were squinting at me over the tops of an imaginary pair of eyeglasses. "That did not happen with you. You knew you weren't Ginger Parker from the start."

"I know." A mental image of two frightened Ginger Parkers running around the Big Ex-Pine Woods floated into my head---disturbing. I said, "But I know the real Ginger Parker, the other me, is somewhere up there, frightened out of her wits. She's in great pain---" I sucked in a sharp breath. I felt the pain as I spoke.

"Yes," Detective Anderson said, "you must have a psychic connection with her. That happens, too."

"I thought that psychic powers and ESP were nonsense."

"Yes, that's true. But in near-identical brains---after all, yours was a near-exact copy of hers---some kind of communication happens. I don't think it's been studied." He shrugged. "You feel what she feels."

"I see what she sees, too. The greenhouse is large and full of plants." I shook my head, to clear the images that didn't come from my eyes. Detective Anderson didn't seem inclined to break my silence with more questions or information.

I asked, "Detective Anderson...what's going to happen to me?"

"Well, that depends on what happens. Up there." He pointed, then started to stand up. "Ginger, you must take me to the place where you last saw this Doctor Xavier."

"Uh...your thing." I pointed to the ground.

"What? Oh. Careless of me." He crouched down to pick it up, then stopped, stayed in a crouching position, and said to me, "Uh, Ginger, once I turn this off, don't speak of this." I nodded. He went on. "And remember, keep you mind, well, keep it open. I may need to do things, things I won't have time to explain. You must watch me for hints. But, at the right moment, you must be ready. Got it?"

I nodded again. He nodded, too, then picked up the gizmo. The antennae retracted and the forest noise came flooding back in.

"Now, Ginger," Detective Anderson said, as he straightened up, "take me to the place." He nodded in a knowing fashion, a subtle nod that wouldn't be noticed from a distance. I nodded to him, got to my feet. We walked on, me in front and him following.

#

Twelve. Doctor Xavier in the Flesh.

The cave entrance I came out of three days before showed no change. But I got a better look at it today. I was closer. It looked like a dark and ragged cut on a smear of green turf. I could walk down it and walk into it, I knew, but from here it didn't look like a cave at all.

We stood on a little bald rise in the ground, bare of trees but the top of it above the surrounding almost-all native growth trees. Detective Anderson looked at them. "All this is second growth," he said. "Way back, this must have been part of one of the manor house farms. They often built on hilltops."

"I came here," I said, and pointed.

He nodded to me, the subtle "knowing" nod again, and said, "Did you go down in there?"

"I looked in," I said, wondering how far I should take it.

"Well, then, let's take a look." He looked up, at the sky. "Hmm. And maybe we can take some shelter from the storm."

I looked up at the sky. It wasn't the clear blue sky of several days before, where you could see several stars and any number of moonlets. Now it was clouding over, shutting out the sunlight. Sometime in the afternoon, I thought, it would rain...but it wasn't about to rain right now.

It offered a good excuse to go into the cave, though. Detective Anderson stepped down into it while I looked at the clouds. The crack itself proved a tight squeeze for him. I was a good deal smaller and thinner. But he made it through. I climbed in behind him.

It was pitch dark inside. A little light came through the entrance, but beyond that, nothing could be seen. Detective Anderson reached into another of his many pockets, and pulled out a small flashlight. He shook it a couple of times, then pressed a button and played the beam around the cave.

After a couple of passes, he said, "Ah. This must be the underground part of some old manor house. It's all smooth and even, even if---" He shined the beam on the floor. It was encrusted with a good deal of guano. "Even if animals are all that uses it now."

"They would have something like that?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. The first settlers dug in. And often dug deep." He shined the light beam down what looked like a corridor. "Lead on, Ginger. I'll keep the light on you."

I started to go ahead, but Detective Anderson said, "Stop!" It was a command. I stopped. He stood at the tunnel edge, and held up one hand to his ear, as if he were listening to something.

I looked at him. He relaxed, and said, "Sorry. I'm not picking up a signal." He pushed his hair back, and shined the flashlight on his head. There, behind his ear, almost circling it, was this plastic half-ring. It blended in so well against his dark-brown skin that no one would notice if he hadn't pointed it out.

It also looked like the flesh of his ear had grown up around it. I must have winced or grimaced or something, because he let his hair fall back and shined the flashlight on me. "Sorry. Maybe you haven't seen one before. It's a phone implant."

"A phone implant? They can do that?"

"Oh, sure. Back on Earth, people were allowed to carry small phones around with them all the time. This is just a more permanent step. It keeps me in touch with headquarters." He grinned. "Or at least it does when it works. I know what the problem is. These tunnels are shielded."

"Shielded?"

"Lead-lined, maybe a lot of steel, too. These tunnels were bomb shelters, no doubt. The first wave of colonists to reach New Horizons worried about being out in the rain, so to say, if trouble came. It never did, though. And now my signal can't get through." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Lead on. We still need to look around to do."

I led on. Within a minute, we passed by a large open door in the corridor. It was a big piece of stone, and must have weighed several tons. Right now it was open, but it looked to me like it had been swung open and shut just a short time before. There was no guano on the other side, but piles of dirt were here and there. I did not notice it when I first came this way.

I looked at Detective Anderson. He shined the light on the door, the door tracks in the dirt, and then at me. But he made no mention of it, just pointed the light ahead. I went on.

I found the room where I woke up, just a few doors down. It was different now, bare of furniture and features. The mattress was gone. There were no lights here. I looked up. Some light fixtures were mounted to the ceiling, but lacked bulbs and even wires. Some electric and communications connections on the walls at ankle level were also stripped. I bent down and examined one, as Detective Anderson shined the light on them.

It was quite a large spread among these concrete tunnels. I asked Detective Anderson, "Why would they build a manor house overhead, then tear it all down and leave these?"

"It could have been too much trouble to tear it out," Detective Anderson said. "Or maybe to fill it in." He shined the light on a pile of dirt. "Watch your step, Ginger."

I stepped around the dirt pile, and thought of what I---Ginger---learned in history class.

This underground area wound down and around, making a big circle, like a giant spring or corkscrew. Ramps here and there, allowed easy access from one level to another, but the long path wound down and around to them if one followed it.

There were many open doors, all to rooms as stripped at the one we had looked into. But there were also some closed doors---stone, like the big door above. At the first one, I stopped and tried to push it open; it wouldn't budge. There was no sign of a lock or even a handle. After I tried, Detective Anderson put some weight on it, then said, "Locked. Or maybe just corroded shut."

"You don't want to try to pry any of them open?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don't have anything. Maybe some other time." He waved the flashlight. "Let's go on." We passed by other closed doors without a word.

About five levels down, the tunnel corridor straightened out and wandered into a large hall, maybe four times as high and twice as wide as I stood---but ended in a blank wall and went no further. There were several doors, all closed up. We tried each with a quick shove, but none moved. Detective Anderson said, "Looks like the end. Back up?"

I shrugged, and glanced at the watch on my wrist---which I couldn't read in the dark. How long had we been down here?

We took ramps up where we wound around before. I led the way again. It seemed a harder haul, maybe because we climbed at a steeper angle. I was pretty worn out by the end, where light from outside shined in on the tunnel. I took one step towards it, and looked back---then realized Detective Anderson wasn't following me. I was alone.

I sucked in a breath, then called out, "Detective Anderson?" My voice cracked. No answer. I hesitated---should I shout? was it safe?---and decided to risk it. "Detective Anderson!" Still no answer.

My stomach balled itself up into a knot. I took in one long shuddering breath and let it out in an almost-sigh---then started down again into the dark

It was slow going. I felt my way. Without Detective Anderson's flashlight, it was too dark to bear for long. I got nervous when I stumbled over something. I avoided the ramps and took the downward circular corridor.

Every so often, I stopped and called, "Detective Anderson!" but he never answered.

I was down two or three turns of the circle---I wasn't certain and had lost count---when lights came on. Overhead neon squares, bright as sunlight. I bent over and started to yelp and covered my eyes, then cut my scream off and forced myself to look around. My eyes watered.

The corridors and tunnels looked more dirty and more bare and more deserted. I stood up and looked around---my eyes were adjusting, though they still watered---and was about to call once more when I heard voices. They were dim voices, echoing on the bare concrete. They came from below. I recognized neither voice, but knew neither belonged to Detective Anderson.

I ran towards the voices. About two more circles down, I found a door that had been closed before was now open, and the voices came from within. An odd red-colored light came out it, as well as a wave of heat. At last I recognized one of the voices---it belonged to Doctor Xavier.

I held back, and crouched down next to the open door. I must have made some noise, because I heard Doctor Xavier call in a loud shout, "Girl! Come here!"

I slunk in. The room was a hothouse. In neat rows of hydroponic tanks were dozens of specimens of compactocadus coeruleoroseus. Doctor Xavier stood in front of one specimen. Detective Anderson's jacket was draped over one arm and he held Detective Anderson's flashlight in the other. He stood with a man I recognized: Mister Garth, the Big Ex-Pine Woods Forest Warden, the man I had seen this morning.

Then I saw. One of the compactocadus coeruleoroseus plants had collapsed in on itself---no, not on itself, but onto a body. I could see the legs and shoes of Detective Anderson. The plant was copying him.

I let out a sobbing gasp---and Doctor Xavier said, "Ah, there you are. Come here!"

Something in my mind that was not me insisted I obey. I crept forward into the light. I was shaking.

"You've bought quite a prize," Doctor Xavier went on. "A B. I. detective. With his influence, I can plant in earnest."

"You don't suppose he suspected anything, do you, sir?" Mister Garth asked.

"I'll question the duplicate and find out. In any case, go back to your office. I'll call you later."

He nodded to Doctor Xavier, then brushed past me without even a nod. With a sinking feeling, I realized that if Doctor Xavier would convert anyone in the Big Ex-Pine Woods, it would be the man in charge of it. Why hadn't Detective Anderson thought of that?

Doctor Xavier turned his attentions to me. "Girl," he said, "go to the arboretum. Wait for me outside it. I will join you there later." He rolled Detective Anderson's coat into a bundle and tossed it to me. He kept the flashlight. It came right to me and I caught it.

"Sir," I said. "The arboretum---"

He gave me some directions, short and to the point. I turned away, then glanced back to catch one last glimpse of Detective Anderson. The plant had folded around him. I turned and ran, tears running from my eyes.

#

Thirteen: Outside the Arboretum

I cried as I ran. The lights were all on and I could see where I was going. The directions Doctor Xavier gave me took me down to the big room again, but now one door that had been closed was open. It led into a long and straight corridor, cleaned-up where the others were filled with dirt, doorless, and better lit than the other area. There was also a long and thick power cable stuffed into the corner of the corridor tunnel, right at the join between wall and floor.

It went on for kilometers, on and on and on...I slowed to a jog and caught my breath. My tears and sobs slowed but I was shaking.

Soon, I knew, the collapsed compactocadus coeruleoroseus would start to bulge...and then the bulge would break and a duplicate of Detective Anderson would come out of it---a duplicate who would tell Doctor Xavier everything---and tell him everything I had told the original, too.
What would become of me?

I thought of running back---I thought I could get past Doctor Xavier and back up the ramps to the outside, and maybe back all the way to Detective Anderson's car. But for what? Could I get into it? Was there a radio or phone I could call somebody for help with?

And who would I call? What would they know? Would they know anything at all about this? Could I get anybody to believe me before Doctor Xavier got me?

As I thought these thoughts, Doctor Xavier's grip, through my conditioning, came on me. He conditioned me, or maybe told me, to obey him---and now that obedience took front and center in my mind. I could feel my feet hit the hard concrete tunnel floor, heading to---where?

Doctor Xavier told me the arboretum was at the end of the corridor tunnel---but when I got there I found another whole underground complex. This one didn't wind down and around like the other. It was also well maintained and clean.

There were words on the walls. I passed by BIOLAB FOUR and BIOLAB FIVE, plus several marked MAINTENANCE and STORAGE. Rectangular signs, on the walls to the left of the door, white with neat black printing. There had been no markings in the first underground complex.

And a lot of the door frames were sealed up by solid, windowless doors. There were several door frames without doors. I looked into them as I passed---they were as empty of furnishings as anything in the first complex.

I reached the room marked ARBORETUM. When I stopped in front of it, the impulse to obey Doctor Xavier died---he ordered me to go to the door, but no farther. To my surprise, the door opened---there must have been some kind of automatic door opener in operation. The door slid to one side. A bright sun-like light, brighter and more intense than that from the overhead fixtures, poured out. A big blast of humidity came out as well. I blinked and closed my eyes, but I could feel it on my skin as it closed.

I had seen the light before---when I dreamed of Ginger.

...the heat, the unbearable heat, beating down on her bare skin, too wet to dry out, until the sweat built up and dripped down into her tight-shut eyes, and the pain in her feet...

Ginger was inside. I knew it. I sagged against the far wall and slipped down until I was sitting on the floor. And then I cried. The tears flowed and I did not try to stop them. I buried my face in my knees and hands and sobbed deep and hard.

I cried myself out after awhile, and ended by sniffing soft to myself. I heard footsteps, and a woman's voice said, "Child, why, what is wrong?"

I looked up. A woman, dark-haired with flecks of gray, a tanned-brown face, clothed in a lab jacket over a blouse and knee-length skirt, and, below that, a pair of muddy boots. I had never seen her before. She bent over me.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I am Miss Vinsdatter," she said. "Can you get up, child?"

"Uh...yes, ma'am." I got to my feet, slow and with care.

She looked me over and tsk-tsked. "We must get you cleaned up." She smiled, revealing a host of wrinkles around her mouth. "Maybe things will look better."

"Uh..." I looked down the hall. I didn't know this woman or where she stood in the scheme of things. "Uh, Doctor Xavier told me to wait right here for him."

She sniffed. "You must be Ginger," she said. "First things first."

"Yes, ma'am." I wondered who she was. "Do you, ah, well, Doctor Xavier---"

"I work for Doctor Xavier," she said, "if that's what you mean." She stiffened. "Now come with me."

Miss Vinsdatter led me down the hall, to another doorless room, but this one was marked RESTROOM. I felt the need in my kidneys and bladder once I saw the sign. "Go on in, Ginger," Miss Vinsdatter said. "Clean up. I'll wait out here."

"But Doctor Xavier said---"

"You let me worry about Doctor Xavier. Now go on in! Go, go, go!" She pushed me inside with a gentle shove, her hands on my back. She did not follow me inside.

The restroom was clean and bright-lit, tiled sinks and toilets. Once I used the toilet, I took my jacket off and hung it up on a handy peg, and then washed my face and hands. After drying them with a paper towel, I felt better...until I remembered Detective Anderson. I sagged against the sink. I couldn't think of any way things could be worse.

I put my jacket back on and went out. Miss Vinsdatter waited. She tsk-tsked at me again. "Your clothes are still quite dirty, but I suppose they must do for now. Later, perhaps, you can shower and shave."

Shave? I thought of my feet, and the roots I couldn't feel, but I knew must be growing there in the dampness of my socks. I wiggled my toes---did I feel something under the soles of my feet? Or was I imagining things? "Uh, ma'am," I said, "do you know, er, who I am?
Miss Vinsdatter looked at me, sternness on her face, arms crossed across her chest. "You are Ginger Parker," she said, "or, rather, you are the residual stem of a compactocadus coeruleoroseus who is in possession of the outward form and memories of this Ginger Parker. I grant you, a subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference."

It was cold, hearing it that way, and I felt cold hearing it. But I had to admit it was the truth, as far as I could tell. I did not understand the biology of it at all. "You know all about it, Miss, uh, Vinsdatter?"

"I have worked with Doctor Xavier for some time on this project." She smiled, her stern expression muting a little. "You need not worry about that, dear. I know everything there is to know about this." She looked at me, the sternness firming up a little. "I know, for instance, you came here to the Big Ex-Pine Woods today with a Bureau of Investigation detective."

I thought of Detective Anderson and frowned. Miss Vinsdatter said, "Don't be upset, child. It is not an evil thing, this transference of memories and physical appearance. It's, it's..." Her face scrunched up as she struggled for the right word, and when it came to her, her face smoothed out. "It's glorious!"

I didn't think so. But I looked at her, and her expression, and wondered. Before I could work up the nerve to ask her a question, she gave me her answer. "Yes, Ginger, I, too, am a product of this project. More than three years ago, I awoke to this life, with the memories of someone else. My other self, so to speak, was a biologist. So I was one, too. I have worked with Doctor Xavier ever since." She smiled again, more broad than before, as if her pleasure now were genuine and not just being polite. "Once I understand what I was and what I had become, I took the name, Vinsdatter, meaning Daughter of the Vine."

"Daughter of the Vine," I repeated. "But what became of your, er, other self? What happened to her after?"

"Oh, as I said, she was a biologist. She was studying plant life her in the Big Ex-Pine Woods when Doctor Xavier brought her in here." She shrugged. "She just went on with her life, I believe. Doctor Xavier brought her in unconscious, and took her out again the same way. I don't know why." Another shrug. "I don't think she ever knew what happened to her."

"I wish I could have that," I said, and slumped my shoulders.

Miss Vinsdatter stepped forward and took me by the same shoulders, lifting me. She was strong. "Don't spend time regretting your brief past, Ginger. You have a future to look forward to."

I wished I believed that. Before we could say anything more, a noise came from down the hall, some kind of mechanized grinding. Miss Vinsdatter let go of my shoulders and turned to face it. She recognized it. I tried to straighten my jacket. Then I tried to shrink against the wall and become invisible.

It was Doctor Xavier. He was behind the controls of some kind of small motorized wheeled cart. The cart seemed in less than perfect shape. He brought it to a stop just an arm's length from me and Miss Vinsdatter. We both leaned back. "Ah!" he said, and climbed out.

"Hi, dear," he said to Miss Vinstatter, then slipped his arm around her, and leaned up---she was taller than him---and kissed her on the cheek. She leaned down and let him.

I gasped.

Then he let her go. She nodded to him, then said, "Work done, dear?"

"Yes, yes. Duplication of the subject's memories and physical pattern will be complete within an hour. I will pick them both up then. But I need to do a few things here."

He looked at me then, fixing me with an intense eyes-open-wide stare. I crouched back from it. I knew I was what he "needed to check on." "Uh, sir," I said, trying not to meet his eye, "I came here as instructed. Miss, uh, Miss Vinsdatter said I should wash up."

"Yes, I did," Miss Vinsdatter added. "And I think she should shower, and also take the opportunity to remove roots from her feet."

"Very well." He nodded. "Attend to it. Be back here in a half hour."

She didn't wear a watch, and I saw no clocks. But she nodded to him, and said, "Come, child." I followed her down the hall. I looked over my shoulder. Doctor Xavier entered the arboretum, the door opening and closing behind him.

#

Fourteen: Shower and Shave

Miss Vinsdatter saw to it that I showered. She took me to another restroom two flights of ramps up. This one had several private shower stalls. She sent me into one and waited outside. From a hamper outside, she gave me clean towels and a white cloth bathrobe much too large for me. She took my clothes and put them in a washing machine---a model that washed and dried everything in a single operation, a kind I had seen in historical dramas.

She sat me down on a stool and crouched at my feet, to shave the roots off my feet. There were more than a dozen different roots, longer than any I had seen before. Miss Vinsdatter shaved them off with a blade, kneeling in front of me, holding each foot as she shaved it. She was gentle---I felt the tug of the blade catching the roots, and the scrape of the blade across my foot, but no pain.

We spoke as she shaved me. "Shouldn't you use soap and water?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No-no-no, not for this kind of shaving.

"Doctor Xavier gave me this stone."

"Let me have the other foot," she said. Once we switched, she said, "Those stones? I know them. You can get them at the import-export shop at the port. I don't know what planet they came from. They sell them as shaving equipment. Expensive, too, like most import. And they go dead in about a year. But the roots should have stopped by then." She let go. "There!"

She gave me a pair of rubber sandals from a shelf. "That's it," she said when I put them on. "We will return to the arboretum."

I followed her back, a single step behind, keeping her in full view. "Ma'am," I said, "I don't understand any of this."

"It can't be easy for you." She shrugged. "Don't ask too many questions right now. Trust in us, and, someday, you will understand." She sighed. "I suppose I should let you ask one question."

Before I could stop myself, it came out. "Where is Ginger?" I asked. "The real Ginger, I mean. She's in the arboretum, isn't she? What happened to her?"

Miss Vinsdatter stopped, so fast I almost bumpedinto her. She turned and looked at me for a long moment. I felt her eyes as she looked---not a stare, but a look---and I let my eyes drop to the floor rather than hold her gaze.

Then she looked away, and said, in a mild tone, "I think I will let Doctor Xavier answer that one."
"But, ma'am, I keep having these visions," I began, then stopped.

---the heat, the light and the heat, it was just too much, she couldn't bear it---

Miss Vinsdatter put her hand to her head, a thumb-and-two-finger gesture that pulled the flesh around her temple together. Had I given her a headache? "Oh, my, yes, I remember. I know what you mean. But they fade out, too." We started walking again. "They will come to a stop."

#

Fifteen: In Somebody's Flesh

We walked up to the arboretum door just as Doctor Xavier walked up from the opposite direction. He looked us over, up and down. "Prompt," he said.

"Showered and shaved," Miss Vinsdatter replied, "as you requested."

"Good." Doctor Xavier looked at me and said, "Now, girl, just what were this detective's plans today. What did he tell you?"

I thought about it---maybe for too long, because Doctor Xavier snapped his fingers and said, "Come, girl, now, answer, quick now."

I spoke, but my voice shook. "He, uh, he said we were to go over the, er, the route I took, through the Big Ex-Pine Woods, and that it would take most, er, most of the day."

"That is definite," he said. "That is obvious. But I must have details. I know the two of you passed by that group of wild compactocadus coeruleoroseus. Did he say anything about them.

I didn't know what to say. Should I just tell everything that went on?

---And what would Doctor Xavier do to me if he found out I'd told everything?

---And if I didn't tell everything, would he find out I hadn't from Detective Anderson's duplicate?

Miss Vinsdatter put her hand on my shoulder. "Doctor," she said, "you are making her nervous. Try to remember that she may be a duplicate, but she is also a young girl in a frightening situation."

"Quiet," Doctor Xavier replied, very sharp. "I must know this."

"You ask too much of her."

"Well, you could ask me," another voice said, echoing down the corridor. All of us turned.

It was Detective Anderson. Or was it the duplicate? I tried holding back a sob, but a little of it leaked out in a faint sigh.

Detective Anderson looked as I last saw him. His jacket was gone. The rest of his clothes were more rumpled and messed up---or had he just taken them from the original Detective Anderson and dressed in a hurry? And where was the original?

Detective Anderson---or his duplicate---came jogging up to us. "I woke up and came down as soon as I could," he said. He stepped between us, so that his back was to me. I stood right behind him. "I didn't catch the full question, doctor." He cupped his hand to his ear.

Doctor Xavier looked him over, top to bottom. Then he said, "All right, all right. But your presence is unexpected. You should not have awakened for almost an hour. I must lecture you."

"I don't know why that is," was the reply. "But I did wake up, and I did come here." He patted his side. "I guess you have the jacket."

Doctor Xavier looked him up and down again, and looked like he reached some sort of conclusion. "Yes. Yes I do, or, rather, I did." He stuck a thumb towards the arboretum. "I put it in there. After you learn from me what you need to know, I will give it back."

"Your, er, conditioning, leaves many gaps," he said. "I learned much but not everything." He nodded---

---and, when he nodded, I saw, behind his ear, the communication device he showed me earlier.

But compactocadus coeruleoroseus, or whatever, would not copy anything that wasn't living flesh or something close to it. Most clothes were synthetics and wouldn't copy. That was why I put on Ginger's clothes. If the original of me had an artificial hip or heart, it wouldn't copy---and maybe a duplicate would die if it didn't. In any case, Ginger was young and in good health and carried no implants. Detective Anderson---well, the implant wasn't living flesh, and there it was.

So the original Detective Anderson stood in front of me. I knew he stood with his back to me, so I could see his implant---so I would know he was the original-pretending-to-be-a-duplicate.

But where was the duplicate? What had happened? And what did Detective Anderson want me to do?

Miss Vinsdatter's hand was on my shoulder. She squeezed, and whispered in my ear, "Nothing to worry about, child." I wondered. Could I trust Miss Vinsdatter? What would Detective Anderson want me to do?

Doctor Xavier then said, "This is unprecedented. But I must ask you a few questions."

For a few minutes, Doctor Xavier asked Detective Anderson questions about me, and our journey together this day. His answers were thorough and detailed. And also consistent. He never once referred to himself as "Detective Anderson," keeping up the pretense that he was the duplicate. Doctor Xavier sometimes made this error in his questions, but Detective Anderson never did in his replies.

The answers were also truthful, except on two points. First, he made no mention of my breaking down and telling him the truth. Doctor Xavier asked him. He said, "No, she did not bring it up."

Doctor Xavier asked about compactocadus coeruleoroseus. Detective Anderson gave the name, but said, "No, my other self didn't know. He was told it was dangerous and there were side effects, but no details."

I felt more confident as Detective Anderson spoke, and did not betray me. But I was nervous---I didn't know, couldn't tell, what he planned or what he wanted me to do.

At the end, Doctor Xavier considered something---I couldn't figure out what---for a moment. He looked at Detective Anderson, then at me. I shrank under his gaze. Could I, well, keep up the lie?

But then Doctor Xavier said, "That's it." He stepped over the arboretum door. "Come in," he said. "The gear I took from you is in here."

He went in. Miss Vinsdatter let go of my shoulder---she had kept her hand on my shoulder all through the questioning---and stepped by Detective Anderson to go in. Detective Anderson nodded to her, and said, "Pardon me, ma'am, but did my other self ever meet you?"

"Perhaps your other self met my other self," Miss Vinsdatter replied. "I, too, am a creation of compactocadus coeruleoroseus."

"Maybe that's it, then," he said, and nodded again. Miss Vinsdatter nodded to him, and slipped by. Detective Anderson followed me in, and tapped me on the shoulder. In a whisper that I almost couldn't hear, he said, "Stay loose."

#

Sixteen: Ginger the First.

I expected to walk into a big room and see Ginger there, Ginger-the-original, Ginger-being-converted-into-a-plant. The room was big, the largest underground room I had been in yet. My eyes watered in the light, and I could feel it on my skin. Ultraviolet or infrared light? One or the other, I knew. Maybe both. Hot and humid.

When I got a good look, I was surprised. Though it was all underground, it looked much like the greenhouse at the local farm supply store---crowded with a mix of plants, of native stock and Terrestrial origin, plus a few specimens from somewhere else. None were labeled. I guessed Doctor Xavier, and maybe Miss Vinsdatter, knew what each one was without needing tags.

There were no compactocadus coeruleoroseus around, either.

This was where Ginger was. I knew it. But where was she?

Doctor Xavier had pulled out a pair of sunglasses from somewhere, but he offered none to the rest of us. Not even to Miss Vinsdatter, who held her hand up and shaded her eyes from the glare. I looked back to Doctor Xavier, whose focus was on me. "You look like you are looking for something, girl. What is it?"

I hesitated. But I caught a glimpse of Detective Anderson in the corner of my eye. He gave an almost-invisible nod. Tell the truth? I coughed, and said, "Well, sir, I was expecting, er, Ginger, somewhere in here."

Doctor Xavier seemed surprised. Miss Vinsdatter said, "It's the telepathic effect, Doctor."

He mouthed an inaudible "ah!" at that, then said, "Well, you will find her here. Not here, I mean, but further on in. Come on. This way." To Detective Anderson, he said, "Your coat and gear are over there, as well."

There was an arched doorway on one wall, doorless, but leading into a smaller side room. Despite this, it was filled with trees---and I saw Ginger.

She was tied up, her hands over her head on a low beam slung from the ceiling. Someone had wrapped and pinned a short towel around her middle, but it hid nothing. Her feet were buried up to the ankles in the dirt of a large square planter. Her breath came in shallow gasps---my own breath matched hers.

"Don't pass out, girl," Doctor Xavier said, a tone more of contempt and disgust than a concerned warning. He stood in front of the planter.

Ginger stirred and looked at us. She struggled against her bonds. One foot pulled loose. It was swollen and covered with little pinpricks. Root formation?

Doctor Xavier bent down and shoved Ginger's foot back in. Ginger flinched at his touch but stopped struggling and closed her eyes.

I tried to breath in a normal way. I could sense Ginger---Ginger's thoughts---I couldn't read them, but I felt them. She was exhausted, and very scared. What did she know? Could she feel my thoughts?

Detective Anderson stepped over to a nearby sheet-covered workbench. I took a look. The jacket was laid across it, and next to it neat rows of various gear. Doctor Xavier must have emptied the pockets. I spotted the conversation-scrambler, among gear whose I knew and gear I didn't. It all must have been heavy to wear, I thought.

Detective Anderson looked at it, and said, "Something is missing. Where is Detective Anderson's gun?"

"You mean your gun, don't you, Detective Anderson?" And there it was, in Doctor Xavier's hands. "Step away from the table, both of you."

He stepped back. I stepped back, until we stood side by side.

"I knew you were the original," Doctor Xavier went on.

Detective Anderson tensed up. "How?"

"You knew too much. The conditioning does not go that far." Doctor Xavier paused, stepped closer to Detective Anderson, then said, "I haven't decided what to do with you. You're a threat to me alive."

I started to slip away---

"Don't go anywhere, girl," Doctor Xavier said, stepping back to where he could cover both of us, standing in front of Ginger. Miss Vinsdatter, who had moved up with us, moved back. Something bad was about to happen.

I looked past Doctor Xavier, at Ginger. She opened her eyes, and looked at Doctor Xavier. Could she---? If she could read my thoughts--- Ginger! I thought, at her, as loud as I could make it. Kick out!

Ginger's feet flew up in a cloud of dirt. They clipped Doctor Xavier's gun hand, then Doctor Xavier's chin. Doctor let out one loud yelp! and fell backwards.

The gun flew up into the air. I pushed Miss Vinsdatter aside and caught it, then fell to the floor, rolled over, and crouched, keeping the gun pointed at her, my hands shaking.

"All right, Ginger, steady, both of you." Detective Anderson spoke in a calm and matter-of-fact tone. I didn't see him move, but now he stood over Doctor Xavier. I relaxed a little

Ginger must have heard, too. She had pulled loose from the planter, and tried to find her footing and stand up. As Detective Anderson spoke, she relaxed, the bonds on her arms holding her up.

Miss Vinsdatter got to her feet. Her arms and hands were up. I didn't want to risk standing up just yet. "What about him?"

"He's out." Detective Anderson looked at him, then said, "That kick must have---well, never mind. Thanks, Ginger."

"You're welcome," I said, and Ginger echoed it.

Detective Anderson went over to the table, looked over the gear---his gear---and picked out a pair of handcuffs. "Miss, ah, Vinsdatter," he said, "will you---"

Without a word, she turned around. Detective Anderson put the cuffs on her, then said, "All right, Ginger."

I gave him the gun, then looked at Ginger and her bonds. There were strange things on her arms. Implanted tree branches?. But they didn't hold her to the beam. That was a rope. "Detective Anderson, sir," I said, "have you got a knife?"

"On the table," he said. I looked, and found it---a pocket knife with several blades. I opened the main blade and took it over to the planter edge. I reached as high as I could---she was as tall as me---and cut the rope.

She fell into my arms. I fell over, and onto the floor, onto my rear. It was painful but I didn't notice. Ginger fell on top of me. She hugged me and began to cry. I cried, too.

#

Seventeen: The End of One Ginger

The police cars were thick and heavy over and around the house. It was the house I saw from the air, the mansion where Mister Garth met us---the tunnels led back up to it. I sat on the cold concrete of what was once the house's front porch and watched things happen. I still wore the robe and sandals---my clothes were somewhere below, in the wash. It was cold concrete, by my mind was full of strange thoughts and I didn't think too much about it.

The storm Detective Anderson and I saw coming, back---long ago, it seemed---back when we first went underground---it came and went. There were puddles everywhere and water dripped from nearby tree branches.

After handcuffing both Doctor Xavier and Miss Vinsdatter, and helping me put a sleeping Ginger onto the cloth from the workbench spread out on the floor, Detective Anderson took off in search of the surface. It was risky---there might have been someone else in the complex who was a danger---but Detective Anderson was confident. And he was right. Less than fifteen minutes later, he was back, with police from the cars that had begun to land.

I sat with my hands on my chin, my elbows on my knees, watching the parade of police come and go. Some wore uniforms, but most were in civilian clothes. Some looked at me, but none came over. Earlier, Detective Anderson asked me a couple of questions, and so did a couple of other police people, but now they left me alone.

A lot of the cars looked civilian---no insignia or flashing lights or other markings. But almost everyone who spilled out of them carried an air of authority. I wondered who knew what these compactocadus coeruleoroseus were.

I saw Detective Anderson again towards the end of the day. It was near sunset, the sun low in the cloudless blue-black sky, soon to fall behind a stand of native trees right in front of the porch. Already some of the police had set up portable light poles here and there. The light drowned out the stars.

Detective Anderson came out of a large car that looked like a portable office. He spoke with a woman in blue police uniform. I couldn't hear what they said, but I saw them both take long looks at me. Detective Anderson came over, alone, after that, and sat down on the porch next to me. At first he didn't say anything. I just sat with my hands on my chin, looking ahead, but not paying much attention.

After a while, Detective Anderson said, "They picked up Garth. He was on the other side of the woods, carrying out his Forest Warden duties."

"That's good," I muttered.

"I think there are at least five more copies of people out there," he said. When I didn't respond, he said, "You saw the other trees in that room---did you get a good look at them?" When I shook my head, he added, "I think all of them were once human beings."

It was not a pretty image. I said, "I suppose Doctor Xavier and Miss Vinsdatter would know." I saw them being taken away earlier; Miss Vinsdatter in handcuffs but walking. Doctor Xavier was carried off onto a stretcher and put into an ambulance.

They put Ginger, still out cold, in a different ambulance. Both ambulances were long gone now.

I said, "I knew he was turning Ginger into a tree. That mental telepathy thing. I think I felt it."

"Yes," Detective Anderson said. "At least you and I saved her from that."

After another silence, Detective Anderson went on. "We still need to figure out who Miss Vinsdatter and Doctor Xavier are, or who they were copied from. They didn't tell you?" When I shook my head, he said, "I mean, Doctor Xavier seems like such a phony name I mean, Doctor, ah, Doctor X?"

It hit me and I chuckled in spite of myself. I forced it down, swallowed it, and said, "How is she?" I meant Ginger. Detective Anderson took it that way.

"All right, I think. I spoke with the doctor---our doctor, that is, the one who came in with our ambulance. He thinks Doctor Xavier tried to plant roots into Ginger's feet, but they hadn't yet taken." He chuckled. "I hope she thinks this was all a bad dream. We'll come up with a story to cover this, something to tell Ginger's parents when we return her to them."

"But they---" I began, then said, "I mean, I---I thought I was going back---that I would go back---" I sighed, dropped my head down between my knees, and said, "I guess I can't be Ginger anymore, can I?"

"No, I'm sorry, you can't." Detective Anderson shook his head with sadness. "Ginger will go back to being Ginger. It's her life. You two can't have the same life."

I felt on the verge of crying, but it didn't come. I knew, on the surface, that Ginger's life was Ginger's---her family, her school, her church---but, also deep down, I could not stop thinking of them as mine.

Now I didn't know if I'd ever see them again. "Detective Anderson, sir," I said, "what's going to happen to me?"

"Well...nothing bad, if you're worried about that. You didn't ask for any of this. You wound up in the middle of a bad situation. You helped us bring it to an end. You should be rewarded."

"But where do I go? If I can't be Ginger, well, I can't---I can't be anyone."

"We'll find a place for you. Someplace. Don't be afraid." He paused, and after just a moment, said, "I'll take you in myself if I have to." He spoke with surprising force.

"If you have to?"

"In fact, not even if." He grinned. "My wife and I talked about adopting. Once the Bureau arranges your new name and identity, we could adopt you."

He seemed excited. I don't know if I was---it was all too confusing. I didn't even know he had a wife---much less one who wanted a family. I had a bad queasy feeling in my stomach.

Detective Anderson must have felt that, because he said, "But we'll see. It may all work out different. Right now, all that's important is that you know we won't hurt you."

I felt a little better. But I missed my family---my family, even if they were Ginger's---and I did not know what would happen next.

Detective Anderson went on. "Tell you what, Ginger---I can still call you Ginger, can't I? Tell you what. I'll take you home tonight. You'll meet my wife---she knows all about this---and we'll talk it over."

I sniffed back a tear, and said, "I thought all this stuff with these compactocadus coeruleoroseus plants was a big secret."

"Well, it is, but some people need to know about it. My wife is one of them."

I shrugged. "I...uh, suppose I should go with you. It's not like there are any other choices."

Detective Anderson smiled and stood up. He offered me his hand. Once we were both on our feet, he said, "Let's grab a ride back to my car. We'll have to go back to the office for awhile, but, about midnight, I'm sure I can pry us both loose and we can go home."

"Home." I looked down at myself. "Er, my clothes..."

Detective Anderson looked back, at the mansion, and said, "Oh, yes. You said they were being washed. Somebody will pick them up...but, yes, I know, they're Ginger's clothes."

"Oh. Right." I felt one more big pang of loss...and then started to cry. Detective Anderson took me in his arms and held me.

#

Eighteen. The Start of Something

My tears dried. We caught a ride with a policewoman who seemed to know Detective Anderson pretty well. She dropped us off back deep in the woods, back where Detective Anderson left his car. It was dark now, pitch dark, out in the Big Ex-Pine Woods. I looked up as I got out of the car. The stars were bright here, brighter than I ever saw them before.

A cool breeze blew through where we landed. I shivered. Detective Anderson took his coat and wrapped it over my shoulders. I still felt cold. My legs were bare and the breeze cut into them. Detective Anderson said, "You'll be all right, Ginger. Back at the office, we'll find something else for you to wear."

He opened up the car. I stood and listened to the sounds in the night woods. They were both familiar and unfamiliar. Some were new. But others sounded just like what I heard every night outside my window---

---what Ginger heard, every night, outside her window. I could not stop doing it. I would not see Ginger's parents again---I wouldn't see Ginger's friends at Ginger's school come Monday morning.

I was me...but who was that, if I wasn't Ginger?

Detective Anderson started the car. I climbed in and buckled up. As the doors closed, I said, "I can't stop thinking of myself as Ginger."

"You go on thinking that way," Detective Anderson replied. "You'll have to build your new self out of your old self. And I don't see any reason why you shouldn't keep the name 'Ginger.'" He smiled. "There are lots of people called Ginger." He turned a little more serious. "You have to give up Ginger Parker. Keep your memories. Cherish them. But build up some new ones on top of them."

I wondered how Ginger was. I reached out---but I couldn't feel her now. Was she too far away...or maybe I accepted we were different people now?

Instead, I said, "I can't stop saying 'I' and 'mine' and 'my' this or that." I turned in my seat to face Detective Anderson, and said, "How did you do it? I mean, back there, with Doctor Xavier. You told a long story and you didn't miss once."

"I'm used to it," he said. The car lifted into the air.

"And how did you get away from that plant that had you? What happened to your duplicate?"

Detective Anderson sighed. "Compactocadus coeruleoroseus copies, but it can't make a copy of a copy. There never was any duplicate, Ginger."

It took a moment for that to sink in. But it did, like a fist in my stomach. "You mean you're---"

"A duplicate, yes." He nodded. "There are some of us about. That's how I know you'll be safe with us." After a moment, he added, "We're here. We're safe. You'll be safe."

I tried to think about it. It was---hopeful, I thought, was the best way to put it. I turned my eyes to the view out the front window, where the brighter and lesser stars twinkled in the sky.

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