When Kotnim wanders sleepy-eyed into the common area, the adults are fighting while they play seotda again.
"None of you can fly this over-modded tin can! I'm the MVP! That's Most Valuable Pilot. I can't be risking these hot hands," —here, a waggle of fingers— "or my pristine Air Jordan 57v3 Retro Off-White Envelopes to the filthy, germ-ridden—"
"If you don't want your precious sneakers to get dirty doing chores then just take them off, you damn peacock! I'm the captain! It's my job to delegate duties, so that's what I'm doing. I'm de-le-ga-ting—"
"I'm more than twice your age and size and yet you delegated at least three times as much food as I did—"
Kotnim shuffles over, leaning on Bubs's shoulder. She's wearing the fuzzy jacket that feels nice against her cheek. "Are they fighting again about who has to do the dishes?" she whispers.
"Yep." Bubs loops Kotnim into the circle of her arms to make her giggle, and tilts her head up to yell, "I don't even eat food! Why should I have to clean up after you disgusting meat sacks?" This triggers another furious round of argument, and Bubs rests her chin on Kotnim's bedhead so they can both look at her cards.
"Don't they just need to press the button on the dishwasher?" Kotnim strokes a finger over the flower on the card in Bubs's hand, and Bubs lets her take it to admire the picture. It shows a red flower with five petals and a yellow center. It’s called a plum blossom. Captain Jang taught her that during their last lesson in how to cheat at cards.
"Yeah, but that's not the point. Adults just like to have something to complain about. I think it helps them with digestion?"
"Hmm," Kotnim murmurs. She doesn't know enough about adults yet to know if that's true. She tilts the card to catch the light, and Captain Jang and Taeho both crane their heads around mid-argument to peek at the card.
"Kotnim-ah, can't sleep?" Uncle Tiger asks. He stretches a hand out to mess her hair up even more, and Kotnim leans over so he can reach. "Do you want water? Milk? A bedtime story?"
(Tiger Park is always eager to read her a story. Unfortunately, he uses the same voice for every character, so everyone in his stories sounds like beloved Disney-Peloton mascot Mickey Muscle.
Bubs has a huge library of synthetic voices, a great sense of drama, and comedic timing that is finely honed to the millisecond. She is also on a big Dostoevsky kick, and Kotnim is finding it hard to relate to the characters.
Taeho is the only person on the Victory who has ever read a book to a child. He has been teaching Kotnim the Korean Sign Language he remembers as they encounter them in Suni's old books. His hands find the shapes he thought he'd long forgotten: Rabbit. Apple. Swing. Blanket. Papa. He thinks he's ready to start taking KSL classes again.
The one and only time Captain Jang had read her a story before bed, it was out of her old linear algebra textbook from when she was nine. It did, in fact, make Kotnim fall asleep very quickly.)
"Don't offer her milk," Taeho moans. "Don't you remember how gassy she was last time? With the pizza?"
"That stink is going to linger in my brain until the day I die," Captain Jang agrees.
"How are you lactose intolerant?" Bubs wonders. "Can't the nanobots fix that?"
They can. The truth is that the new Lagrangian bots think the sounds and smells are funny, so her bots leave it alone to make them laugh. Once, Kotnim mentioned that the Langrangian bots had decided to stick around, and the adults went crazy like the time they thought she was going to explode when she just needed to sneeze. She'd laughed like it was a joke and changed the subject, a neat trick she learned from Pierre.
She'll wait until the adults are all older to tell them the truth.
"Uncle Tiger," Kotnim deflects, "can I draw new tattoos for you?"
"I just got these all lasered off," Uncle Tiger protests, but he's smiling. "What would you design for me?"
"I think...a tiger," Kotnim decides, with all the creativity she can muster at this time of night.
"Your tigers all look like clown fish!" Uncle Tiger says, pained.
"Like Nemo!" Kotnim agrees.
"Oh, I know those movies!" Captain Jang says. "I liked number eight the best."
"Isn't that the one where Nemo discovers Atlantis?" Uncle Tiger's forehead goes wrinkly in thought.
"No, that's seven," Taeho says. "Eight is the one where Nemo grows legs."
Kotnim yawns suddenly, mouth stretching open like the baby birds you see in Earth holos, before slumping in Bubs's arms. "I think I'm sleepy again. Can I stay in your room, Bubs?"
"Just put her back to sleep, Bubs," Jang says. "There's no way you're winning this hand without cheating, anyway."
Bubs sticks her tongue out— she's started doing that a lot, now that she has a mouth— and tosses her card on the table. "Sure, kid. Let's get you back to sleep."
Kotnim beams and flashes the plum blossom card in her hand. "Can I keep this?"
"Go for it." Bubs hoists a delighted Kotnim up onto her back. "The captain is right, I had a shitty hand. But Taeho has the same card up his left sleeve anyway."
The squawking and hollering fade away as Bubs scoots down the hallway to the safety of her room. Once inside, Kotnim hops down and rolls herself into a blanket worm on the bed. Bubs dials the lights down and settles on the floor, leaning against the wall near Kotnim's head. She pulls out her tablet to start her nightly online shopping, and Kotnim takes a peek.
"Why are you looking for another skin?" Kotnim yawns mightily once again. "I thought you liked this one."
"Oh, I love this skin. It took me two and a half years to pick it out." Bubs tosses her hair for emphasis, and Kotnim agreeably goes pbbbt when some gets stuck in her mouth.
"I'm not changing my skin any time soon. But when you grow all the way up, eventually I'll need a new skin to keep on looking like your big sister."
(The average lifespan of a UTS L-model harpoon robot is 5.3 years before decommission. Bubs was 5.7 years out from factory production when she was replaced by the newest N-model and slated for destruction. Until Captain Jang had stolen her from a trash heap, her programming had never let her think further into the future than the end of her latest assignment. Even after Jang had pried out her AI cognitive limiter— when she was suddenly walking around with free will, big opinions, her own room, and a gender— she didn't spend much time thinking about what would come after acquiring her new skin.
Lately, though, time has been opening up in front of her like the fanned pages of an unread book. Her predictive models have expanded their range to 5, 10, 30-plus years in the future. Captain Jang would be a salty dried-up piece of pseudosquid by then, but she'd make sure Bubs's circuits were still functional. Out of a sense of pride, if nothing else.)
Kotnim squirms both arms out of her blanket cocoon to wrap around Bubs's neck. "You'll always be my big sister. Whatever skin you have on."
Bubs carefully cups one of Kotnim's little elbows with a free hand. "Thanks, kid." Kotnim can feel herself starting to drool on Bubs's shoulder, but decides not to do anything about it. "You know, I just like looking at new skins. It's like clothes shopping. I should save up again just in case." The sound of tapping and scrolling, and Bubs makes a contemplative hum. "I kind of dig the milf look, actually."
Kotnim wakes up just enough to peer at the screen. "What's a milf?"
"An old-fashioned American English word. It's supposed to mean 'middle-aged woman I would like to date, but if I make her mad she will dump me, marry my dad, and become my stepmother in revenge'."
"Yeah. I think it makes more sense in English."