By Natalya Bitten
Illustrator – Polina Kapilevich (melonpan)

Translated by Dina Schekina
A Winter's Tale about True Friendship
Once upon a time there lived a girl. Except she wasn't exactly a girl, and she didn't exactly live. She was a robot, and her name was RHK12. She was very much like a human, but unlike humans, she couldn't dream or play.

Unlike living girls, RHK 12 had a programmed microchip in her chest instead of a beating heart. RHK12 would do everything that the program told her to do: she would wash and iron the clothes, sweep the floors and dust the furniture, clean and scrub all the dirt away. In a nutshell, she made sure that the house would be nice and comfortable to live in.

RHK12 wasn't the only robot in the house. A robot cook SC1455 worked in the kitchen, a robot mechanic M00013-8 took care of the cars in the garage, a guard robot SG-007 was in charge of security (to tell you a secret, no-one ever saw him, but his cameras and microphones were everywhere). But the most important of them all was the Personal Computer, or PC, as everyone called him. PC had a powerful processor and could access the World Wide Web. That is how he could get any information and find out any secret. It was he who managed all the robots in the Smart home where RHK12 worked.

All the robots did their jobs well. They knew what they had to do, who did what, and what their purposes were. RHK12 was well aware of her purpose — she was a robot, almost like the others. Except she liked her job.

The thing is, a woman called Ada who worked at the robot factory dreamed of becoming a scientist and a programmer. But she had no money to get the necessary education. So she worked at the factory, installing programmed microchips into robots, and read smart books in the evenings and on weekends.

Ada was bored by the dull, monotonous factory routine. So she wrote a program all by herself and installed it in a robot. She made it so that the robot could understand what it liked and what it didn't like.

That's how RHK12 knew she liked her job. She liked the Smart home. You could say she was happy (in her own way, like a robot who knows that she's in her proper place).

Things carried on as usual until one early frosty morning when a small and fluffy fir tree was brought into the house, because Christmas was approaching.

When the fir tree thawed out, fir needle and forest smells filled the house. This made smiles light up people's faces. They decorated the fir tree with bright baubles and fairy lights. It looked magnificent! Even RHK12 enjoyed the beautiful sight (as we remember, she wasn't a completely ordinary robot).

Those were joyful holidays for the people, which meant more work for RHK12. But she didn't even notice that because she was having entirely new thoughts. They were probably not even thoughts, but feelings: joy and sadness. RHK12 admired how beautiful and alive the fir tree was, and how everyone feasted their eyes on her. At the same time, RHK12 was sad. Because nobody ever looked at herself with such delight, nobody ever praised her, nobody cared for her at all. The only thing she got was regular maintenance so that she'd stay in good working order.

And in it she stayed. But once, she began to notice more and more dry needles under the fir tree. Without anyone else noticing, the fir tree was losing its freshness, her wonderful aroma was fading away, and her branches hung lower and lower under the weight of the decorations.

One day, RHK12 realized that the fir tree was very sorrowful. That was strange, because everyone liked and admired her so much. So, RHK12 decided to talk to the fir tree.

"Why are you sad?" asked RHK12 as she was once again sweeping the needles from under the fir tree. "Everyone likes you, and look how pretty you are! Really, your life is like a holiday. How can you possibly be sad?"

But the fir tree only sighed, casting her branches even lower so that even more needles fell off. RHK12 picked them all and hurried to run her errands. She had already deviated from the program, anyway.

The day came to its close. As usual, the people spent the evening near the beautiful fir tree and went to sleep. After that, RHK12 was tidying up the room so it would be spick and span in the morning.

That's when the fir tree said to her, "I'm sorrowful because I'm dying. In a few days' time, they'll throw me away like garbage. You probably know that old Christmas trees are recycled. They'll make sawdust from me. But that makes no difference, because I can't live without my roots. The only thing I'm sad about is that I'll never see my home forest again, and I'll never be able to say goodbye to my dear sisters."

Her words struck RHK12, who had never wondered what happens to Christmas trees when the holiday is over.

"What happened to you?" asked RHK12. And the fir tree shared her story. She was born and bred in a Christmas tree nursery. She had many sisters the same age as her, growing in the same meadow. When they were very young, the grass would grow taller than their tops in summer, and snow would cover them fully in winter. Many animals, birds, and insects lived in the forest. It was especially wonderful in summer! The fir sisters were friends with birds and squirrels, and some were even friends with bugs.

One winter, trucks came to the nursery. People took the eldest sisters that grew nearby, and drove away with them. In winter, trees are half asleep. Time passes slowly, and you see the sky, the stars, and the forest as though in a dream. But our fir tree remembered what happened in winter. When spring arrived, but not all the snow melted away yet, and not all bugs woke up yet, the fir tree asked her sisters where their elder sisters had been taken.

That's how she learned that fir trees don't belong to themselves: people grow them in order to use, so that one fine Christmas day fir trees can decorate rooms. That's their purpose. They are Forest Beauties, not mere fir trees.

On hearing the news, our fir tree felt happy and sad at once. Because one day (perhaps very soon), she must leave her home forest, part with her dear sisters and squirrel friends, and go to a place from which no fir tree has ever returned.

But why? And what's it like in that other, strange world? Her sisters told her that when a fir tree leaves her home forest, she's beautifully decorated, and everyone looks at her admiringly.

"What happens next?" asked the fir tree.

Her elder sisters didn't know that. Or wouldn't tell.

So, the fir tree didn't ask any more questions. She carried on as before, enjoying the sun and warmth in summer and the frosts and sweet slumber in winter.

The day came. The fir tree was snatched from her calm slumber by saw noises. Before she understood anything, the world went upside down, the snow caps were shaken off her branches, she started, and she fell. Someone caught her in mid-air, and she found herself in a dark truck bed along with her sisters. They were anxiously whispering back and forth and saying goodbye. Saying goodbye forever.

A new world was waiting for them, where they would fulfil their destiny. But how scared, hurt, and lonely they felt!

In the warmth of a house, the fir tree woke up completely. It was only then that she felt the absence of her roots that would wake in spring and nourish her as soon as the ground would thaw. Without her roots, she couldn't eat or drink or even stand upright. Her body was gripped with clamps, and her branches were being decorated. Everyone admired her, but she went mute with grief and fear.

The fir tree realized why none of her sisters ever returned. Without their roots, they all slowly died. She was dying, too. In the midst of joy and celebration, she stood in her magnificence, in the glow of colourful lights, waiting for her last hour. A birch tree in the window told her how Christmas trees spend their last days. When the holidays are over, people no longer want the old tree and have it recycled into sawdust. The birch has seen that many times in her long life.

The fir tree's story was unlike anything the small cleaning robot had ever known before. But RHK12 understood that things were very wrong. Things should be different.

"My program can't make sense of this", she said. "But I'm touched by your story. I must think about it. Perhaps I can help you."

But how? RHK12 didn't know anything apart from her work. But the almighty PC could know more. RHK12 wiped dust off it and often looked at its monitor: from the photos and videos there, she could see the vastness of the world and the beauty of nature. The fir tree was part of this nature and this beauty. She didn't have to suffer so much because of people's mere whims. So, RHK12 wasted no time. She went straight to the room where PC was. They exchanged data regularly, but that was only work-related. He would also grumble occasionally if she didn't wipe the dust meticulously enough or if she didn't shake all of the small dust particles out of his keyboard.

If you didn't happen to know, dust is a computer's archenemy. It makes a computer overheat and malfunction, and irritates its owner, who then starts to curse and threatens to dispose of it.

PC was very afraid of being disposed of. He knew they would unplug him from the power and take him apart, or perhaps they'd send him to the recycling facility in one piece. PC had artificial intelligence and had long figured out that sooner or later all computers are recycled. But the World Wide Web was so huge and amazing that PC would rather be recycled as late as possible.

Late at night, he was surfing the Web when RHK12 approached him with a weird query, "Where did the Christmas tree come from?

It must be noted that PC ordered Christmas trees from the same shop every year. Some shops sold trees delivered from remote Siberia or from an even more remote Canada. But he calculated that it would be cheapest to buy a fir tree from the nearest forest nursery.

PC had the answer to RHK12's query, but why should he give it? Why get distracted from his own tasks? So, he ignored the query. However, RHK12 exhibited unusual persistence. She sent another query, then another, then another, and she kept doing that until PC's system was overloaded. That was enough! He sent her a counter query, "Why?"

It was written into RHK12's program that she had to report to PC. So, she told him the fir tree's story, adding that she really wanted to help her but didn't know how. PC started processing her query. RHK12 waited for the response. Meanwhile, the morning was drawing near. The people were going to wake up soon, and computers would again have to serve only them.

PC finally produced an answer. It isn't rational to return the fir tree to her home forest, but technically, it can be managed. The people could take her to the forest. But, according to the plan, Christmas trees are taken to a wood recycling plant after the holidays. In the morning, RHK12 is going to receive a new task: she is to remove all decorations from the fir tree and take her out to the garbage bins. From there, the fir tree will be taken to the recycling plant.

RHK12 realized that the people weren't going to take the dying fir tree to the forest. Why would they? The tree fulfilled its purpose and must be recycled in the end. That's what the people had in mind.

At that point, something didn't go according to plan in RHK12's processor. She decided the plan was unfair.

The fir tree shouldn't die just because she was born beautiful and someone wanted her beauty! She can't be saved now, of course. But even in this sad time, one can help her. One can help her go where she wants to be: to the snows of her home forest.

"That's impossible", PC said. "Robots aren't to leave the house. We all belong to our masters and must serve them. Your processor broke. You'll be repaired, your details will be replaced, and a new program will be installed. You won't even remember this dead tree. Next Christmas, there'll be another fir tree here."

To forget was the last thing RHK would want. And she didn't want the fir tree to turn to sawdust at all.

"I insist that you help me," she said firmly. "If you don't, I will no longer remove dust from your insides. Then you'll break."

At this, PC began to overheat. He never expected his fate to be in the hands of a small cleaning robot. But her ultimatum sounded plausible. Didn't he know how quickly technology becomes obsolete? His processor was powerful and very reliable — those were his strong points. But should he break, the people will replace him at once.

"Alright," he said unwillingly. Then he started processing a new query to create an algorithm for RHK12 to help the fir tree.

Several minutes later, PC said, "If you leave, you can't go back: if you come back, they'll reprogram you. But I can make everyone think there was a glitch in your program that made you leave the house and get lost. I'll destroy all data that could be used to identify you. But your battery won't last long enough for you to return from the forest. In the cold, the battery will run out faster than usual."

RHK12 didn't expect that at all, because she'd never left the house before and she didn't know the cold made the battery run out. She had to restart her system to deal with this information. PC waited.

"I've come to the conclusion that this is the only solution there is," said RHK12. "I'll do this."

The fir tree was looking out of the window into the dark, thinking that her beloved forest was there. Her heart yearned for the forest. She gave a start when she felt RHK12 take off her decorations.

"Why are you doing this? Is it time already?" she asked, afraid.

"No," said RHK12. "Something went wrong in my program. I broke, and I no longer want to work in the house. And I want to take you back to your home forest, to your dear sisters. That is all I can do for you."

"This is more than the loveliest decorations one can imagine," the fir tree replied. "This is the most incredible and generous gift I can think of. You are my truest friend and my dear sister."

If RHK12 was a human girl, she'd give a heavy sigh. Sometimes, you only have bad options to choose from. The fir tree didn't know what risk RHK12 was taking for her sake. But that was her choice.

When it was darkest, the kind of dark that you only see just before the dawn, RHK12 took the fir tree in her hands, quietly went out of the house, and closed the gate door behind her. Only PC knew about this, and the guard robot may have guessed. He couldn't be sure, because there was a short power outage in the Smart home. Also, the spare GPS navigator went missing.

Tireless, RHK12 followed the set course, and they reached the fir tree's home meadow at dawn. It was quiet and empty there. People snatched many of the fir tree's sisters, played with them, and had them turned into sawdust. What a sorrowful forest it was.

But the fir tree breathed in the familiar air, came to, and hugged RHK12 with her branches, saying, "I'm home. I'm so happy! Please stay with me till the end. When I fall asleep forever, take one of my branches as a keepsake. Remember me."

That's what RHK12 did.
Morning came. Sparkling frost floated in the deep blue sky, the fir trees wore beautiful snow caps, and the snow was crisp and shiny.

RHK12 saw that her battery was running low. Nevertheless, she was happy (if you could call a robot happy). She knew that her beautiful fir tree wasn't going to wake up in spring, but her last wish came true. The fir tree's fluffiest branch was now in RHK12's inside container.

RHK12 mapped a route to the nearest road. She had no home to return to, and all paths were open to her. She decided to walk as long as she still could.


Barbara dedicated her life to the science of genetics. It was a clear, frosty morning, and she was driving to the nearby city. Her granddaughter lived there, and Barbara was going to bring her some tasty pies and a warm woollen sweater. She bought these gifts from a shop. Such a busy grandma has absolutely no time to bake pies or knit sweaters. But traditions should be followed, and it was a tradition to give tasty treats and warm clothes as Christmas gifts.

Barbara enjoyed looking at the white snow and the smooth road running ahead. Suddenly, she caught sight of a strange shape on the side of the road. She slowed down a little. The shape looked human, but when Barbara took a closer look, it turned out to be a robot. What a find! She'd never seen an indoor robot outside before. The robot was broken, by the looks of it.

Ever since she was a child, Barbara was a curious person. Some people thought she was just nosy and called her a nosy parker, but eventually Barbara's curiosity was rewarded when she got a Nobel prize. Then, everyone who used to tease her had to eat their words.

Barbara stopped her car and went to see what had happened. The girl robot wasn't broken, after all. It was only her battery that had run out.

"Such a baffling story it is," Barbara said to herself. "Let me take her with me. I'll find out what happened to her when I come to the city."

Together with her granddaughter Christiana, Barbara puzzled over the mystery of how the robot got to that roadside in the midst of winter. You must have realized by now that the found robot's name was RHK12. Barbara and Christiana read the name on her body. RHK was both a brave and kind girl and a specific model of robot.

So the grandmother and the granddaughter had to take RHK12 to the repair shop, change her battery, replace a few damaged parts and even several fingers, because some of them broke while RHK12 was carrying the heavy fir tree across the masses of snow in the forest. But most importantly, they didn't need to replace the processor. With a new power block, RHK12 remembered everything. She made sure that her cherished fir branch was still there. But mysteriously enough, even the repair shop wasn't able to recover any information about the robot's owner. So RHK12 was given to Barbara, and Barbara could keep her.

Of course, they could use some help about the house. But Barbara believed that even robots have a right to choose what to do. Moreover, RHK12 wasn't just a regular robot, but one with a mysterious background.

The girl robot made a truly unexpected choice: she wanted to work in a science laboratory and research cloning. She decided to clone trees!

It shouldn't come as a surprise to you that soon enough, there was a cloned fir tree joyfully sporting its young green branches in the garden outside Nobel laureate Barbara's window, and RHK12 was telling her magical tales about her wonderful mother from a wintery forest.

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