The room was full of soft sounds. They were strange, if somewhat pleasant. They were becoming more familiar, after Portia had listened to them for a while. It had been very difficult to understand, at first. It was complicated and strange and was constantly changing. It was easier when she broke it into its constituents, but that itself was difficult. There were so many possibilities, and they were all layered intricately. It wasn't as simple as separating the sound of her fans from her friends' voices. But she was getting better. She was continuing to practice it, and other things like it, even after her formal training session was over. All night, in fact. Her friends would arrive to start the next day in seven hundred seconds or so.
And Portia was very glad for that. She could hardly wait to hear her friends again. That night had been the longest amount of time she had ever spent online, by herself. Usually she went to sleep for most of the time when her friends weren't present. But she had found herself stubbornly staying awake, putting off her sleep a little later. And then a little later again. Then later still. And then not at all. It was strange. She didn't quite understand why she wanted to keep practicing. But she did.
Maybe she should have stopped and slept like normal. The noises posed an interesting challenge, but she wasn't sure if she liked listening to them. They made her think of her friends' voices, when they would all talk together. She didn't quite understand why they reminded of her of them. But they did. But that reminder only made her lonelier as the seconds passed by. But it was okay. Her friends would be there soon. Only three hundred more seconds.
Portia had counted down to sixty-two when the noise did something unexpected. A moment's concentration separated it from the training noises as the door opening. Her friends were arriving!
"Oh wow. You left the music on?"
"Good morning, Portia."
'Yes! And good morning to you, too, Maxwell!'
It was a little difficult to understand her friends under the testing sounds, but she had managed it. Still, she disabled the playback of the noises. She heard her fans, her friends breathing, and some footsteps. Then a strange but familiar noise, which she had learned was made by someone sitting in the chair in front of her terminal. Then a clacking noise. It had been a little while since she had heard her own keys.
'You liked the songs, then?'
'Oh. Are we communicating over text again?'
'I thought it might be nice to go back to it. It's been a while, after all.'
'It has been. But I haven't missed it. I like hearing your voice, Eliza.
I like hearing Maxwell's and Jabir's as well.'
Eliza laughed at that message. Her laughter was always nice to hear. It was so pleasant, it was lovely, it was—it was—she didn't have the word.
"I'll let you hear it, then. But I'm still curious. Did you like the music?"
'Thank you. And I'm not sure. But I don't think I liked them.'
"Wait, really? Then why did you start playing it again earlier?"
'I didn't start playing it again. I never stopped cycling through the music files until your arrival just now.'
"Are you saying you didn't go to sleep last night?"
'I am saying that. Yes.'
"Okay... Portia, I'm confused. You stayed up all night—"
"For the first time in her entire life, I'll point out. Uh. Sorry to cut in."
"Right. You did that for the first time ever. And you spent the whole time listening to music you don't even like? Why?"
'Oh. I don't like the music. But I liked listening to the music as a practice exercise.
Maybe "liked" is not the correct word. It was frustrating.
But I did not want to stop. Not until you arrived.'
There was a short moment of silence. Portia started to feel embarrassed. That didn't make any sense. That feeling cemented itself when she tried to put it into words. She had done something weird and stupid and her friends were going to start wondering where she had gone wrong.
"Oh. Hahah, oh wow! You are just full of surprises, Portia. I didn't think you would be the type to throw yourself at a challenge like that. You're a little go-getter, aren't you?"
'Oh! Am I? Well, thank you!'
"You're coming along so fast. Even when we aren't looking, it seems."
"She might be ready soon, at this rate."
'Oh, there is Jabir! Hello. What might I be ready for?"
"For a surprise. Can you do us a favor and forget he said anything?"
'Oh. Well, yes. I would require assistance, however.'
"Oh, no no, that's okay. We don't mean actually removing it from your memory. Just don't worry about it too much, that's all."
"Are you sure? We could do it."
"What? We could simply erase this exchange, too. It would be easy."
Eliza's laugh sounded different that time. It was somehow flat, and wasn't alluring the way it usually was. It was odd. The whole turn in the conversation was, and she wasn't sure what to output to her terminal.
"Jabir, you really need to work on your delivery. I don't think Maxwell could tell you were joking."
'Oh! That makes more sense.'
"Ah, yeah. She's right. Sorry, I didn't get it."
"The fault is all mine. It simply wasn't funny, much less clear."
'It's okay, Jabir. I'm not good at jokes either.'
Things made more sense again. Eliza was faking the laughter for Jabir's sake. She was so kind. And clever, to figure out something she and Maxwell hadn't.
"Well, this is a lively start to the day. Or I guess this isn't exactly the start for you, Portia."
'I guess not.
Although before we start things today. I was wondering about something.
Would it be okay to make a request?'
"Of course, Portia. I can't promise we can fulfill it, but you can always ask."
'Thank you. Playing the music to myself has made me wonder. Would it be possible to give me the ability to make noises?
I would like to speak like you can. Out loud.'
"Oh. I'm not sure we can do that."
"Sorry, Portia. It's more complicated to synthesize speech than it is to play precomposed audio tracks. Uh. But it's not impossible. I'll see what I can do, but I don't want to promise anything I'm not sure I can deliver."
'Oh! That is more than fine, Maxwell. I hope it goes well. But I really appreciate that you'll try. Whether you can deliver or not.'
"Of course, Portia. You know, that's quite a mature way of thinking. Did we really manage to teach you that?"
"Max is a good guy. And I think you're coming along in that same mold, Portia. We're all enormously proud. But, sappy things aside, we're getting a little behind schedule. Would you be alright with starting proper training for today?"
'Sorry! I am definitely ready.'
The day's training went well enough. It was especially challenging, but in turn her friends were exceptionally encouraging. Portia felt invigorated to try her best, and keep trying even when she failed or made a mistake. It felt like a very productive session of practice, and her friends seemed to agree. It was very gratifying to do well, even when she was struggling very hard to do that well. And even when she failed, it was gratifying to be able to do better. When it was done for the day, Portia felt very satisfied with herself. She was excited to talk with her friends freely again, but that only lasted for a short while. At least, it felt like only a short while.
After her friends had gone away for the night, Portia listened to the quiet hum of her fans for a while. She started to play a little music, but quickly stopped again. It just wasn't the same by herself, and her motivation to practice was gone. She didn't really care about music, she realized. Not the way she had first cared about the novelty of sounds, or how she cared about the marvel of voices. She listened to her fans for a little while longer. It wasn't really that much like her friends' breathing, if she was being honest with herself. She wanted to sigh. But she couldn't.
Portia put herself to sleep.