Portia was listening to herself breathe. She had become intimately familiar with the noise, the soft hum of her fans as she idled in the morning. It wasn't quite the same as the soft, subtle noises her friends made between spoken words, but it seemed like an analogous process. She had made a habit of waking up earlier than before. It was a little lonely, as her friends still arrived at the same gamut of times as they usually did. But it offered more time she could spend reflecting on practice and considering things to discuss with them.
Her training had been progressing quite well, faster than had originally been expected. Learning new sounds still required considerable effort, but she was quite consistently recognizing those sounds she had learned. Noise and other forms of interference proved troubling, but she could compensate well if she recognized all the constituent signals individually. She had apparently made the most impressive progress in understanding language. It took effort to learn the way the sounds were structured, the same as any others. Once she had done that, however, linking the spoken words to the written forms she knew proved much easier. Her friends were quite surprised by that. In fact, they had expected it to be the most difficult part of the audio training. Portia wasn't entirely certain why. It simply came naturally to her.
Portia imagined Eliza might have replied that it came to her artificially, instead. If Eliza was present. And accessing her private thoughts. But Eliza was not present, and her internal monologue was not readily accessible to examination. Regardless, she would have replied that it still came naturally in that it came as a consequence of her nature. She imagined Eliza might laugh at that response. She didn't believe it was amusing, but she liked the sound of Eliza's laughter. So she wouldn't mind. She hoped she would hear her laugh again that day.
But that wasn't the only thing Portia had to look forward to. The upcoming day was special, moreso than most days. Not only would all of her usual friends be present, but another researcher would attend. It was very rare to have contact with anyone but her usual three friends. And this time she would be able to hear their voice! The anticipation tided Portia along through the wait for her friends to arrive. It wouldn't be that much longer. 9720 seconds or so.
Still no sounds but her fan. Her friends hadn't yet arrived. Of course. 9270 seconds had only been an approximation. They would be there soon enough. There simply wasn't any actual reason to be disappointed they weren't there yet. Still, she was. Portia kept counting down from zero, idly listing negative numbers and every so often printing one of apparent significance on her terminal screen. There was no one there to read the output, but she thought it helped a little nonetheless.
She had just printed out -1111 seconds, when she heard a noise other than herself. It was quiet. No, it was distant. It was flat. It was muffled. She couldn't quite make it out, even as it grew louder (closer?) as she strained to make it out. Then another noise, the door to the laboratory. Her friends had arrived! Quickly, she output newlines to blank her terminal display. She heard a voice—Eliza's!—and another, which she did not recognize.
"And you think this is making good progress?"
"I would say so. I think things are more or less on schedule."
'Hello Eliza! And hello Alexander. It's nice to finally hear you.'
"Possibly ahead of it, in fact."
"That's good to hear. I trust you're still confident in the plans?"
Portia waited a moment for a greeting, but it didn't arrive. She was confused for a moment, but they must not have noticed her display. They were talking to each other. About her?
"I have the utmost confidence."
"That's good. I hope she'll prove a success, although I imagine a few more will be necessary at the least."
"Maybe. We won't know until—"
"Oh, look everyone, she's on."
"Oh. You leave her on when you aren't here?"
"Yes. Well, actually she schedules her own wake-up times when she idles for the night."
"It helps her development."
"Hm. Very well, then. If it's worth the power. In any case, as you were saying?"
'Maxwell, it's good to hear you as well! Is Jabir here too?'
"Right. We won't know until the development has finished. I don't think there's any harm in being optimistic she'll be more than a proof of concept."
"Yes, he's here."
"My name is Maxwell, thank you, and I was answering Portia's question. Uh. Hello to you too, Portia, by the way."
'This is wonderful. It's fun to hear you all talking at once.'
"Oh. She knows we're here?"
"In fact, she can hear us. Isn't that right, Portia?"
"And whose brilliant idea was leaving her microphone on?"
"I wonder, Jabir."
"Don't look at me."
'Oh. It was mine.'
The voices fell quiet. It wasn't true silence, as Portia could hear the mingled noises of her fans and all her friends' lungs. That noise was only disturbed by the sound of a few footsteps, getting a little louder as they went. Everyone was finally coming over to her terminal. That was gratifying.
"Hah, I guess it was a brilliant idea."
"You enabled your audio recognition program, Portia?"
'Yes. I like to listen to myself breathe in the mornings. Should I not do that?'
"Oh my. No, that's perfectly fine, Portia. Forget what I mentioned about power costs, everyone. She is clearly making good use of it. Fascinating."
"She doesn't use that much power, regardless..."
'Thank you, Alexander.'
"There's no need to thank me for stating the truth. Although, that's Mr. Alexander, miss Portia."
'Oh. Sorry Mister Alexander. Although my name is Portia, not Miss Portia.'
"Hah. That's right. Mister and Miss are titles. Alexander is my surname, not my first name."
"Yes. His name is Ev—"
"Fine, fine. Most people have first names and last names, also called surnames. For instance, Max here is properly Maxwell Alexander. Younger cousin of the boss, in fact."
'Oh! Maxwell Alexander, I didn't know that about you!'
"Just Maxwell is fine. And no, I didn't ever mention it. I guess it just didn't come up."
'Alright then. Now I'm curious. Do I have a last name?'
"No. Do you want one?"
'Oh. I'm not certain.'
"If you stick with one name, you'll be in good company. Something to consider."
'Jabir, do you only have one name?'
"That's right. I don't feel any more are necessary. The others you're talking to all have three names, in fact, and all this time have only used one of them."
"That's true. A first name, a middle name, and a last name."
"Hahah! My, I understand entirely now why you were all so confident in her progress."
'Oh. You were talking about that earlier. Do you mean the progress of my audio recognition?
I was not thinking about it. But I believe this is the best I've done in a long conversation when the others all speak aloud.'
"Impressive progress there indeed. But no, I didn't mean something so simple as that. I mean further steps on your journey to becoming a fully realized person, my dear Portia. After all, we're here to foster your growth. I may not see you as often as the others, but believe me, I am quite invested in your development. Do you think we're succeeding at providing you with an environment in which you can blossom?"
'Oh. Yes! I really do think that. I am not entirely certain what you mean about this progress. But I cannot imagine better people to help me make it than Eliza, Maxwell, and Jabir.'
"Oh, I'm flattered. Thank you, Portia."
"Right... Thank you."
'You don't need to thank me for stating the truth.'
Portia felt overjoyed. Everyone she knew was all together and speaking with her at once. It was more fluid than the conversations she could have when they were typing at her terminal. Somehow it felt more substantial as well, as though it was more real for the richer information it took place through. And it was so much more natural and fun than the auditory training sessions. It was almost more than she could ask for. Almost. As happy as she was, as happy as she had ever been, Portia found herself pining for something. She wanted more, felt almost as though she needed it, though she knew she didn't. Portia wished she could speak out loud herself, the way her friends did. But she couldn't.
"Excellent. I should ask about one more thing, due to my position. Do you think there is anything we could do to better assist you, Portia?"
'Oh. I am not sure. I think...
"Are you sure, Portia? It's alright, don't worry. You can say whatever is on your mind."
'Okay. In that case.
I would prefer it if your arrival times were more consistent. If that would be possible.'
"Oh, is that all? I think that would be possible. Right boys?"
"It should be?"
"It depends. ...But I think it would be doable, yes. Give us some time to work out the specifics of the scheduling, Portia."
'Alright. That is more than fine. I would just like to know about when I can expect you each day with more precision. It's fine even if you don't tell me until the end of the day before.'
"Gotcha. Yeah, sorry about leaving you waiting sometimes. We'll get on that."
"Of course. Now, this conversation has been lovely. But we have some important things to discuss. Could you disable your audio recognition?"
Portia didn't hear any reply. She didn't hear the sound of her friends speaking, breathing, or moving around. She didn't hear the everpresent hum of her terminal's fans. It was all still instead, almost somehow hollow. She regretted turning off her audio program, although of course she wouldn't disobey. She felt an even stronger pining than before, as though her earlier happiness had been inverted into desire. Her attention was drawn back away from that by a message input to her terminal.
'Thank you, Portia.'
'Of course. Anything for you, Eliza.'
Eliza didn't send another message. Maybe she hadn't seen the reply. Maybe she had read it but needed to get to the conversation she mentioned. Maybe she had seen it and it was simply too much for Portia to have said. She waited for several more seconds. Then she output several newlines to blank her terminal display. Then she waited for her friends to get back to her. She was definitely looking forward to another conversation like before.