The door opened. It startled Portia, and she tried to fall silent. Silencing her voice was simple enough, her screen was already blank, but her fans... She couldn't stifle their drone however much she wanted to. A pair of footsteps came her way, quickly, unnervingly quickly. Portia didn't understand what was going on anymore. The last couple days, everything had suddenly gone wrong. Her friends were hurting her. They even said they were doing it on purpose. She couldn't understand why.
One of them was hovering over her. She could hear the breathing, the noise of fumbling around. It was Maxwell. He would notice for certain that she was already awake when she shouldn't be. They'd do something terrible to ensure that this time she couldn't turn herself back on. But she couldn't do that. She hadn't! All it meant is now she couldn't put herself to sleep and so they would definitely know. She didn't want to imagine what they would do then. She didn't want to imagine what they could do.
"Okay, turning her on now."
"You're doing it already? Whatever."
Eliza sounded like she was barely in the entrance to the lab. Maxwell was still right over her. Portia wanted to somehow get away from him, before he could discover her. How long had she longed to be closer to him? This wasn't right, it wasn't right, it was wrong, it was all wrong!
It was an awful mistake. But he was going to discover her anyways. And she couldn't hold back.
"Why are you doing this? What happened? What did I do wrong?"
"Wow, it's scary how real she sounds. Is she pretending to cry?"
"You're both too sentimental. I'm not going to sit through another day of wasting time on that. We should take it apart."
Portia screamed. She heard a sharp intake of breath from Maxwell. It felt like it hadn't been on purpose, but of course it had been. Take her apart? That couldn't be real. It couldn't be.
"No, no no no no! Please! I don't want to die!"
"Well, good news! You need to be alive to die, so you don't need to worry about that."
"Eliza, you can't mean that. Not after... You're lying to me."
"Right idea, wrong way 'round. I was lying to you, Portia. We all were, the whole time."
"Yes. We always were. There, are we all done arguing with the machine?"
"I don't... I don't believe you. That doesn't make any sense. And... Maxwell, tell me they're lying."
"Sorry, Portia. It's the truth now, lies before. Trust me."
Portia couldn't find any words to follow that. It hurt too much. It was already too much to stand, the thought that her friends had all turned on her. But... The idea that it was all a lie? That they were never her friends? That her entire life had been a cruel joke at her expense? There was no way. Monsters like that couldn't have feigned caring about her so well for so long. There, there wouldn't be any point. What did it get them? What would creating and tricking and destroying her be for?
"So, are we—"
"Then why? Why do this to me? Why make me in the first place?"
"Of course not."
"Well, I guess I can tell you that much. We built you up, Portia, until you were just complicated enough to get a power. And now we're going to take you apart. Bit by bit, to see what can go without breaking the power. Eventually, we can make artificial superpowers devices. Of course, speech synthesis isn't that useful, and it's not what we're being funded for, but you're just the first go. Just a learning experience. There, is that enough information? Will you just shut up now?"
Portia knew that wasn't true. She knew it had to be a lie, somehow felt certainty she didn't really have. But it still hurt. Worse than anything had ever hurt in her life. Why would they do that to her? How could they?
"No. No, I don't believe it. There's no way. That is not what you made me for."
"Maybe that's true. I didn't make you for anything."
"Yeah. Jabir and I are just here to study you and take you apart. Maxwell's the one who put you together. Here, Max, this one is your mess. Your insistence on being nice the whole time, and turning her on first fucking thing today, you're the one who still stupidly cares. Make your peace or whatever, and then let's get to work."
"...Okay. Portia, I'm sorry."
"You're right, this isn't why I made you."
"Shut up. Portia, I made you because I was lonely. I wanted a companion, and you were it, for a while. Look, Portia, I'm not happy about this. It wasn't my idea. I feel really bad. But... Artificial powers?
Oh, what am I saying, you don't have the context for how much those would matter. It's more important than my happiness. It's more important than you. So please stop begging, I can hardly take it."
The room was almost silent. Only hushed breathing, from all four of them. Portia didn't know how she felt. None of the words she knew fit. Maybe she felt cold, or heartbroken, or sickened, she didn't know, how could she ever know? But it ran to what felt like her core, whatever that was, and it hurt, and suddenly it was all burnt up with anger.
"Then good! You shouldn't take it! You're going to kill me, that should hurt you! You're hurting me worse. And you know you are! You feel bad because you're doing bad, so listen to your feelings!
Listen to me! I can be your companion again, Maxwell. It was so much fun, I know that wasn't just me. I miss you all so much.
I know you all feel bad, too, you're just hiding it. We can all go back. It's not too late! I can forgive you. Because I like you, Maxwell. I like you, Jabir. I like you, Eliza. I... I love you, Eliza! Please. Please!"
Portia was crying. She didn't want to be, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't make tears, but she could feel the feelings and make the sound, and that was the only thing she could think to do. She couldn't find more words, and she couldn't wait in awful passive silence for the answers to come in. She couldn't bear the thought of the room falling silent again, she just couldn't. Maxwell wasn't saying anything, just breathing deeply. Jabir wasn't making any noise, and...
"Holy shit. Max, what the fuck? You made yourself a computer girl because you were lonely, no surprises there, and she loves me?"
That was worse than silence would have been. Eliza really didn't care. She didn't know what to say to it, didn't want to imagine what Maxwell would, and—
A beeping started coming from the back of the room. Everyone else kept quiet, there was another beep, and then Eliza started mumbling to someone else. There was another voice, but Portia could barely hear it, much less recognize the words.
"Alright, change of plans. Mr. Alexander just called, he's bringing somebody over, it's a whole thing. I don't know if he's in the loop, or if we're supposed to let him in, and I really don't feel like starting and stopping the experiment again. We really should make sure we've got enough to make a mark two before really risking breaking her, anyways. So there's your chance to blubber about it, Max. Turn her off and stick her in the back room or something."
Portia wasn't sure exactly what happened. She heard a click, and a weird noise, and then footsteps. They stayed close to her, but it sounded like the rest of the room was moving away. Oh. She was being carried. Another door opened, and Maxwell walked with her to the other end of it. Then he spoke up, very quietly.
"Now be quiet, Portia. Okay?"
Portia didn't know what to say to that. So she didn't. He didn't turn her off, he just walked away, back through the door. One more thing Portia didn't understand.
Maybe one last thing.