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Whose Woods These Are

Tools lay strewn about her desk: rulers, French curves and a book of stencils, along with the pencils and markers she’d used to complete the piece. A pair of scissors lay in wait next to a bottle of glue, with small piles of silver and gold glitter not far away. A few flecks of the glitter dotted her russet and cream colored fur, and she’d not managed to completely remove the glob of glue that had fallen onto her long tail. Clean up could come later. Completing her task remained paramount.

Before the child began work on the current project, she first turned her attention to decorating the monochromatic room with cutouts of Christmas trees and snowmen. Two chains of paper rings stretched from the corners of the room and met in the middle, each link alternating green and white. She’d even taken the time to stretch out sheets of cotton into snow that dusted the tops of her bookshelves.

Now she’d turned her attention to the card. She’d planned the design meticulously, with several changes in the days leading up to putting it all together. The final piece showcased several reindeer in the background, with a smaller one in the foreground. A piece of red foil made his nose prominent, even better than she’d hoped. For Santa she created a new interpretation, due mostly to her inability to draw a person with any skill. He’d become a snowman, complete with a bright red beard and mustache surrounding his coal mouth and carrot nose. She’d finished that cover art first, and now worked on the message inside. Her own handwriting was illegible at best, so she’d found the book of stencils to make certain it looked neat. She alternated diagonal stripes of color, red and green, to make the letters look like candy canes.

It read, Merry Christmas Father!

She only wished she had a real present to go with the card, but the lab offered her few options in that regard. Besides, Doctor Reynolds assured her the best gifts came from the heart, made by hand. She wanted to make this card brighten his Christmas even just a little, for everything he’d done for her. It needed only a few more little touches, and it would be perfect.

She glanced at the clock. 4:10 AM. Her wake up call would come at 6:30, so she doubted she’d get much sleep. At first, she worried her decision to stay up late might keep Santa away from his appointed rounds. Then again, as she looked around the clean room, she saw no way for the jolly man to find his way inside. Would he even know she lived there, since the lab had no chimney? He’d never come before and she’d never noticed, but Doctor Reynolds and Miss St. Claire only told her the stories about him a few weeks ago. That marked the first time she’d ever written Santa a letter. How was he to know what she wanted before without one?

It took another hour to finish, and she slipped under the covers to at least take a short nap She didn’t feel tired, but she thought it might at least give a chance for Santa to visit, if nothing else. It also made time pass a little faster. She couldn’t wait to see what Father thought of all her hard work.

* * *

“Please tell me this is not how you spent your time yesterday.”

Rodrigo Diaz had stopped in the doorway and stared at the decorations while the rest of the research team filtered in behind him. They wore the typical gray lab coats and latex gloves, several of them carrying in small cases or clipboards. Diaz stood out with his spotless white lab coat, gloveless hands and bringing in nothing, save his disapproving stare.

“But… it is Christmas.”

“Which is but a day on the calender, RD-01.” He stepped forward and yanked down the paper chains, which fell limply to the corners. “I have no patience for frivolous celebrations, particularly when there is still work to be done. Take a seat, please. Wilford, Anderson, begin taking samples if you please.”

“I’d hoped–”

“I had hoped. You are to take shortcuts in nothing, as I recall.”

“Y-yes. Of course, Father.” She offered her arm to the first of the techs that approached and looked away as they started to take out the needle and blood vials. Her ears dangled over the top of her head, pitched downward like a scolded dog. “I… I made you a card.”

Diaz stepped to the table, where an envelope of green construction paper awaited him. He snatched it up, stared at it blankly, the opened it. He focused on the card front a moment, then flipped it open and examined the interior. With one quick motion, he tucked the card back into the envelope and slipped it inside of the lab coat. “Frivolous, as everything else you have done. I must confess, though, I admire the precision in your work, the attention to detail. Those will serve you well as we advance your studies. But make no mistake, this day holds no special meaning, nor is it a reason for any sort of celebration. We will need to find more productive uses of your free time, such as it is.”

He glanced around the room, and eventually settled on the taller side section of the clean room. They had assembled a training area there, complete with an obstacle course designed to gauge her ever increasing agility. A mirror stood in the far corner, behind which was a control room and observation post. The rest of the walls were blank, like so much else in the room. “There is considerable free wall space. Perhaps we could install shelves and transfer part of the facility’s library here. Research related, of course. You could increase your knowledge dramatically.”

He stepped back across the room and whispered something to one of the techs, who scribbled notes on their clipboard. “But I expect all of this cleaning up by tomorrow.”

Her shoulders slumped. “Yes sir.”

“Very well. I will leave the rest of you to your work.”

* * *

RD-01 heard the door to her clean room open, but remained perfectly still, curled up in her blanket while she faced the opposite wall. She didn’t stir at the lights came on, nor when she heard several items being placed on her desk. Evening meal and a new set of data to analyze, both of which she could get to later. Footsteps drew closer to the bed, but she kept her eyes tight. For a brief moment, she entertained the notion that it was Santa Claus, finally making his first appearance in the lab. The stranger cleared his throat, dispelling that notion, but she still kept herself from reacting.

“You’re not fooling me, Ardy.” He paused, then added, “You snore.”

“Do I?” she asked without turning around.

“You’re not going to drown out a chainsaw, but it’s true.”

She pulled the covers tighter around her. “I would like to sleep more, Doctor Reynolds.”

“Having some good dreams?”

“That was last night.”

“Funny.” A chair skittered across the floor as he pulled it up. “From what I heard you didn’t get much sleep at all last night. Not that you need all that much, from what we’ve been able to figure out, but still. C’mon kiddo, get up. I brought you something?”

She finally rolled over to face him. Her jade green eyes were red, trails in the fur from where tears had flowed earlier. “I am not supposed to cry.”

“Then we’ll keep it out little secret. But seriously, there’s something over here for you.”

“I find it difficult to muster much excitement over protein gel and water.”

“And here I thought our tests showed you had a really great sense of smell. Take a whiff, why don’t you? Tell me if that smells like the usual fare.”

Now that he mentioned it, she did detect a new aroma in the room. She didn’t recognize the smell, not exactly. Elements were familiar, like the scent of citrus and the unmistakable smell of cooked meat, but they’d been combined into something new and different. She scrambled out of the bed and dashed to the desk and saw a tray of food unlike anything she’d seen before. Brightly colored, steam rising and carrying those wonderful scents to her, even more intensely now.

“Orange glazed ham,” Reynolds said, pointing his way around the plate. “Sweet bread stuffing with cranberries, sweet potatoes with marshmellows and my personal favorite, french onion green bean casserole. We had a little meal of our own here, and I convinced Doctor Diaz to let us share a bit with you.”

The child leaned forward, then turned a suspicious look to him. “Will this not interfere with the metabolic profiles?”

“Of course it will, but that’s the point. See, you’ve had a little real food every now and again, but at some point your kind are going to eat regular meals like this. He’s thinks of it as less a special dinner, but more as a new variable.” He grinned and pulled a small container from his pocket. “I even talked him into letting you have a few snickerdoodles.”

“Snickawhatsis?”

“Snickerdoodles. They’re cookies. My favorite cookies, as it happens.” He sat the tin on the counter and opened it. The smell of cinnamon and sugar made RD-01 salivate. “Only after you finish your dinner, of course.”

“O-of course.” She quickly pulled her hand back into her lap.

“We were talking about the library, too. I know he wanted to go all science, surprise, but I talked him into sprinkling in a few literary classics here and there. Can’t be all work and no play, right?”

“Of course not,” she said, even though she felt certain Father would disagree.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Reynolds reached under the table and sat a box on the counter. “I ran into this very nice gentleman this morning, and he wanted me to give this to you.”

“One of the other scientists?”

“No. Jolly guy, red suit, all that stuff. Seems he didn’t know how to find you, but he trusted that I would get it to you.”

“For me?” She ran her hands over the surface of the box, feeling the paper crinkle under her fingers, tracing them over the ribbon tied around it.

“It says RD-01 right there on the tag.”

“What is it?”

“Well, funny thing about presents. They’re supposed to be opened by the people whose names are on the tag. You’d be the one who needs to open it.”

A broad smile crossed her face. “Can I?”

“Of course.”

She shredded the paper in seconds to reveal a plain brown box underneath. With a quick swipe of one of her claws she sliced through the tape and opened it to reveal an array of Styrofoam peanuts. They spilled onto the floor as she scooped them out of the way.

They protected an action figure, at least a good eight inches tall. Covered in molded blue-green fur, only a pair of glowing orange eyes and the tips of two horns showed from under the gray hood she wore. Her fingers ended in impressive claws, while her legs ended in hooves instead of normal feet. She looked frightening at first, but it took RD-01 little time to find a button on the back that changed the shape of the eyes, to give her a sad looking expression.

“Klarika…” she said in a low whsiper.

“Wow,” Reynolds said. “You know she’s really hard to find? Santa must’ve had a hard time turning that one up.” He reached over and showed her a few more features. One slid the claws out further, while another whipped her spiked tail to the side. “I had one of these growing up too. Kids picked on me because I looked different. Kind of like how Balen used to make fun of Klarika on the show. You remember?”

“Yes, but then when they were trapped in the Mirrored Cave with Scylla and Charybdis, he realized how it made her feel.”

“And in the end, the Morphanatics accepted her in spite of her appearance, because they saw the person she was.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “It reminds me of someone I know.”

“Are you certain it will not be an issue for me to keep this?”

“I cleared it with Doctor Diaz. I’d probably keep it hidden away, just to be safe, but he doesn’t mind. I cleared it with him. Er, I mean whatever the present ended up being.”

RD-01 beamed as she wrapped the figure into a tight hug. “I will cherish this forever.”

* * *

Doctor Reynolds stripped off his lab coat and stepped out of the clean room, then walked down the hallway to Diaz’s office. He didn’t bother to knock, and as usual the doctor was hunched over his desk, a mountain of reports beside him. He finished writing in his notebook, then took off his glasses and looked up at him.

“I take it she enjoyed the dinner.”

“Of course.”

“I doubt this will yield any useful information, of course, but I concede your point. It will be interesting to see how she responds.”

“She liked the toy too.”

“I doubt it will cause any harm, but I hope she does not expect this to be a regular occurrence.”

“Rod, she’s eight years old. She should be allowed to have a toy every now and again.”

“I suppose. Though, given what I understand of that figure’s value, I am shocked you chose to give it to her.”

“She’s a good kid. You should try seeing that side of her, instead of focusing on the negative all the time.” He sighed. “I mean, she still calls you Father…”

“Miss St. Claire’s idea, which is foolish sentimentality. Her forte, I suppose. But RD-01 is an experiment. The title is not appropriate, but I somehow doubt she will ever break that particular habit.”

“And it’s a bad thing because..?”

“Because it distracts from our mission. You know we cannot dally with this, Jack. She is far too important for us to squander her potential, or waste any time proceeding with the research.”

“Of course.” He shook his head. “You sure you don’t want me to bring you anything from the potluck?”

“I appreciate the offer.” He reached to the side of the desk and held up a bowl of what looked like clear jello. “If protein gel is sufficient for RD-01, then there is no reason it would not meet my nutritional needs as well.”

“And you’re not going to spend any of Christmas with your wife?”

“The best present I can offer her,” Diaz said, “Is staying here and working.”

“Of course. I should probably get back to work myself. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.”

“As do we all.”

Reynolds started to leave, but something at the corner of Diaz’s desk caught his eye. A hand crafted Christmas card, sitting atop a green construction paper envelope.

“Cute card.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Your kid make it for you?”

“Something like that.”

“You know, someone told me recently Christmas was just another day, a frivolous waste of time.”

“I do believe that to be the case. However, science thrives on difference of opinion. This is but another reminder of that principle.”

“If you say so. Merry Christmas, Rod.”

“Have a good evening, Jack.”

A few hours later, as he closed his notebook, Rodrigo Diaz found himself first looking at the card, then picking it up. He ran his fingers over the striped letters, where he could feel the indent of the pencils used to create the card. He dabbed a handkerchief at the corners of his eyes, clearly watering due to the later hours he’d kept. He sat the card down again and opened his notebook once more. Miles to go before he slept, indeed.

But had anyone else been in the room that moment, they might have heard him say one thing under his breath.

“Merry Christmas, RD-01.”

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