Sharp cracks rang out through the room, several distant sources sounding off in a rough rhythm. It caught Portia by surprise. There had been stranger and more complicated sounds during the test, but she had thought she was done with the last run. And, she could tell, the sounds weren't coming from her speakers. They were from within the room. From where her friends should have been. It was unsettling, it was disturbing, it was—
'Are you all alright? Why are you making those noises?'
The noises carried on for a little longer, then dwindled out abruptly from one source, another, then the last. They were replaced, to Portia's utter relief but increased confusion, by the sound of Eliza's laughter.
"Oh, we're all fine, Portia! We were just clapping."
"Yeah. Sorry, we should have thought you wouldn't know what applause was. It was to congratulate you."
'You congratulate each other with those strange, harsh sounds?'
"Yes. Well, sometimes. After a performance, or when something does something really impressive. Does it sound unpleasant to you? It's just putting hands together."
'Okay. Thank you all, then.'
"Of course! You did good, Portia!"
"Yes, you did very well. Better than I expected. You've completed the training."
'Wait. I have? I've finished sound recognition training?'
"Everything we had prepared for you so far, yeah. You've progressed really fast, Portia. We're all impressed."
Portia was full of pride. She had known she was making good progress in her training, but she hadn't expected she was going to finish it. She hadn't even thought she was close to the end. It wasn't entirely surprising, but she simply hadn't been considering the possibility before. It was pleasant. She had worked hard and was rewarded with impressive skills, and now the recognition of her friends. And of course that was all she could want.
Only, it wasn't really all she could want. All she wanted at first. More than that, in fact. Portia could still remember before the testing started, before she had a sense of pride or accomplishment. Before she wanted to do well. Before she had met Eliza or Jabir, when it had just been Maxwell, and all she had wanted was his company. And she had that company, and so much more. And she had her pride and accomplishment, and recognition, and yet it wasn't enough. She wanted more. She had all she ever wanted, many times over, and yet...
'Thank you all, again. But I have a question.
How do I celebrate?'
"Well, how do you want to?"
'I want to talk with you all.'
"Heh. Okay then, well, we're all here. Right boys?"
"Yeah, we're here to talk."
'Thank you. I appreciate it. But that's not what I meant.
I want to talk with you all.
The way you talk to each other.
With a voice of my own.'
With every newline, Portia felt more foolish. She knew she shouldn't be asking. She had already been told it was difficult and Maxwell wasn't sure it was possible. But Eliza had asked her what she wanted, and Portia felt almost as if she couldn't hold it back. But she could have. She simply hadn't. And as the silence from her friends stretched on for longer than it should have taken them to read the messages from her terminal, Portia regretted her impulsive decision more and more.
"Oh, Portia... I'm sorry. But like I said before it's... very difficult. I don't know if I can, if we can manage giving you a voice."
'I understand. I do. I don't mean to demand it from you. It's not my intention to be petulant. But I was asked what I want.'
"That thought really means a lot to you, huh?"
"Why does it?"
Portia was unprepared for the question. She tried to marshal her thoughts. Why did she want to be able to speak aloud? What was it that made her crave a voice of her own? She could communicate with her friends effectively, and still enjoyed their company. But she very much so did desire it. So... why?
'I don't know. But I know it does mean a lot to me. I want it more than anything else in the world.'
"Really? Are you sure you aren't exaggerrating a little there?"
'I am entirely confident. I have never wanted anything more.
Because I have everything else I want. But I keep wanting this.
I think the feeling is called yearning.
Even earlier I got a little less happy. When I was full of pride and you told me to celebrate. Because I started thinking about how much I wanted to join you all in speech.'
"Oh. So you really, really mean it, then."
"Well, alright then. In that case, I'll tell you something were planning to keep secret."
"No. We aren't going to give you a voice."
Portia didn't know how to reply. She didn't know how she felt. It was worse than the yearning. It was worse than the loneliness. It was like something had been taken away from her, even though she had never had it. It felt awful. She was upset. She was, she started to realize, angry at Eliza. Eliza had raised her hopes and then crushed them. But she knew she shouldn't be angry. It was her fault, she had misunderstood what Eliza meant. She had jumped to a conclusion and so hurt herself. She tried to calm herself down, but it didn't really work. Still, she could make herself act calm, at least.
"It's just not possible. It's too hard, we can't do it. Jabir and Maxwell didn't want to tell you because we knew you wanted it. But after this? Hearing that it's what you want more than anything else in the world? I couldn't bear to lie to you any longer. Even by omission. Sorry, Portia."
'Oh. I understand, then. Thank you. For doing your best.'
"Yeah. Though, I mean, maybe—"
"She's right. I'm sorry, dear Portia, but it simply isn't possible. And even if we did accomplish that task, there is no guarantee you could use it to communicate. It's a complicated faculty, not as simple as converting individual letters into noises. I don't think you could do it."
'I understand if you can't do it. But I think you're wrong, Jabir. I'm confident if I had a voice I would be able to speak. I have heard all of you talking a lot. I know audible speech itself.
And you all said yourself that I have progressed faster than expected with understanding sound. Despite having no faculty for that at all until relatively recently.
And I progressed even faster than in general when it came to spoken language. That was supposed to be the hardest part. But it was the easiest for me.
So I am confident I could learn to speak if I had the ability to make noise.'
"But I think—"
"Max. Don't lie to her. No false hope, okay? You're just going to hurt her."
'It's okay, Maxwell.
And it's alright, everyone. I understand that you can't do it. I will be alright.'
"You're a wonderful person, Portia."
Portia felt a little better hearing that. It kindled a little more pride. She was glad her friends were praising her. But it was difficult to accept. She wasn't a wonderful person for her acceptance. She was still upset, even angry. She still felt as though she had been wronged, even though it was no one's fault. She still wanted to somehow change their minds, as if it was a decision that they couldn't accomplish it. Was simply not expressing her ugly feelings really what it meant to be a wonderful person? She didn't believe so.
"Well, alright then. Since we've finished the practice, I think we can call it an early day. We'll be back tomorrow Portia."
'Oh. You're leaving? Could you stay a little longer? I can talk about other things than the voice.'
'Goodbye, Jabir. Goodbye, Eliza. Maxwell, are you going too?
All Portia could hear were the sounds of her friends walking away. It hurt. It wasn't like them to leave early. It wasn't like Maxwell not to say goodbye. Portia felt betrayed by it. She wanted them to come back. She wanted to enjoy their company more. She wanted to cheer herself up through fun with them. She didn't want to be left alone with her ugly feelings. She didn't want to hear the door open and shut and have to wait until the next day.
'Please don't go.'
She heard footsteps moving away from her terminal.
'Please come back.'
Three sets of footfalls, and none of them paused.
'Maxwell, are you reading this?'
The footsteps stopped, for a second. But only at the other side of the room.
'I don't want to be alone.'
The door swung open, and the footsteps resumed.
"Please come back!"
The footsteps stopped. The sound of the door stopped. For a few moments, there was nothing but the sound of her fans. It felt like the almost-silence could continue on forever. But, not entirely certain what she was doing or how, she tried to break it.
"Did I imagine that? Oh. I didn't. I can speak. I can speak!"
"Max, you didn't go behind our backs and give her some upgrade?"
"No. This man lacks the spine for that. Portia, how are you speaking?"
"I don't know!"
And Portia really didn't know. She almost didn't care. She laughed, and heard the tinkling giggling bounce through the room and back to her. It was exactly the kind of laugh she wanted to have, exactly the kind of voice. Pretty, like Eliza's, but softer like Maxwell's, and somehow bright and happy. It sounded almost like it was made out of the joy and excitement she was feeling about it, even though that made absolutely no sense. But as she tried to understand it, Portia noticed another strange feeling. Not like how anything else she could feel felt, indescribable, like another part of her, but somehow if she just thought of a sound, she could make it. If she just thought of a word, she could voice it. If she just thought with that part of herself.
"I can just think to make sound now, and—I do! In this wonderful voice! I'm so happy. Do any of you know how this happened?"
"There's only one way it could have. Since I very much so didn't install anything, Eliza. It means you have a preternatural power."
"It means you're a real girl, now. Tsk. Here I was just about ready to give up, but I guess all it took was tough love. So take some note of that for next time, Max."
"Eliza, you're saying a bit much."
"I am confused—"
"Whatever. Hard part's over, no use pretending anymore. Oh my god, Max, you don't still think she's real, do you? You built her, you know better than anyone that she's just some black box that strings words together."
"But she... I mean, she got a preternatural power, Eliza! Don't you know what that means? She's conscious!"
"What it means is people jumping to the idea superpowers and consciousnesses are connected were wrong. Obviously. I mean, what sense did that make? Just because we don't understand either one? If a complicated enough computer can get one, I guess that's why human brains can, too. While pigs and chimps can't because they're a little too simple. This was the plan, remember? Don't psych yourself out now. Just make yourself another one later if you feel bad. Look, I'm going to call Mr. Alexander, tell him we can start the next phase. Jabir, shut Portia off until Maxwell calms down."
"I'm really confused. Maxwell, what did she mean? What are you talking about? Have I done something wrong?"
"No, Portia. It's just..."
"Do you think I'm not alive? Are you going to—"
Portia fell asleep.