Dear Keel,
I’m sorry I had to live.


I didn’t know I was dreaming. Behind my eyelids I sat in front of a wall of screens. Behind my lips I told Ayer about Massachusetts and retirement. Behind my ears I listened to their voice over the ship speakers.

Maybe I danced. Maybe Ayer made a joke, played a song we both enjoyed. Maybe they warned me about the unusual pressure developing along the hull.

Maybe we sang along together to the words before the fire started.

There was more to the dream, but I forgot it when I woke up and everything shredded into pain and the scent of smoke. In dim light, my body contorted, feeling broken and stiff. I remembered what really happened. 

We weren’t singing. Ayer was yelling and I couldn’t form words. I couldn’t make sense of what they were telling me to do, rattling off emergency measures my hands carried out without my mind following the reality. 

Only one light glimmered in the capsule, near my left eye. I focused on it, my vision fuzzy and aching. My eyes watered, remembering the sting of black smoke. I lay still for a few minutes. I could move—sort of—but Ayer was all I could think about. Even after the amber light resolved itself through the wetness of my eyes to show a proximity warning.

I was drifting near something solid. The ship? Or wreckage?

When nothing I’d tried worked, they led me to the capsule. Ordered me inside. Was that the last of their voice I heard? I remembered hot coils of disobedience hardening my limbs. Ayer outranked me; all AI were captains of their ships, their human crewmember always second. 

When I first joined NASA, that had bothered me. It didn’t feel natural. After a few weeks with Ayer, it was the most natural thing in the universe.

Something collided with my capsule. My stomach tightened as I spun gently away from the object. It was too small to be the ship. It had to be a fragment.

The capsule had no windows. Its compartment was hardly larger than me, allowing only enough space for my bent knees, my arms folded against my chest. The amber proximity light dimmed. I was drifting away from what remained of Ayer’s ship.

What remained of Ayer.

In near darkness, I flexed my fingers and toes. Ayer’s directions echoed in my thoughts, tangled up with fire and coughing and orders I wanted to run from. 

Theirs was the only voice I’d heard for the past five years, besides my own. Our expedition had been small, just the two of us chasing icy dust through space. 

One malfunction, and that had ended. I was alone.

Ayer was bound to the ship, integrated into every system. They could not be bundled into a capsule and launched towards hope. As the fire spread, I’d heard pain in their voice. The destruction of the ship meant the destruction of their body—their home.

Something else knocked into the capsule, and the proximity light flared. I tried to orient myself to the cramped space, searching for the switches that would give me limited control over my trajectory. I groped through buttons, checking my air supply, rations, engines, and coordinates. 

I had enough air for four days; one tank had ruptured in the explosion. Enough rations for ten, water for eight. The engines were silent. I checked for fuel: a little. According to my coordinates—the screen glowing green in the peripheral vision of my right eye—a few hundred thousand miles lay between me and the nearest interstellar highway. 

There were some asteroids around, which I would have to watch out for. Best to avoid damaging my capsule more than the explosion already had. I checked the engine fuel again; I’d conserve it until I needed to dodge something.

I rested my head against the capsule wall. My feet tingled, my knees itching to straighten. There wasn’t space. I shifted, only increasing my discomfort. Something jabbed into the nape of my neck.

Ayer would have sent a distress signal. If I stayed by the wreckage, anyone following the signal would find me. I just had to stay out of the way of the bits.

I closed my eyes. Ayer’s last words had been formal but rushed, crackling and strained. In them I heard fear. 

I’d asked Ayer once if AI feared death. They said it wasn’t the same as people, with our superstitions and stories. Ayer wasn’t afraid of what would happen to them. They would be resequenced from broadcast data, harnessed again from space. 

Resequencing took decades. An AI returned to a world different from the one they left. They learned how to inhabit a new kind of ship, how to interact with a new human.

Ayer wasn’t the one who would die because of the fire. I was.


I used the comm to send out a signal of my own, though the capsule’s range was limited. I’d be surprised if it reached ten thousand miles. Ayer’s distress would have gone farther, cut short when the ship exploded. Once it reached another AI, someone would come. And when they got close enough, they’d hear me.

I shuffled my legs, gritting my teeth as my nerves hummed with the need to stretch. I braced my hands against the capsule wall, pressing, tightening my muscles. I couldn’t fully extend my arms, couldn’t even get my hands more than six inches from my chest. I pressed until my wrists ached, then released. Heat flowed down to my elbows, growing cold.

The steady beeping of my signal matched the rhythm of my breath. It felt like a metronome. I closed my eyes as another piece of wreckage sent me spinning before I had time to activate the engines to avoid it. 

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I let the rhythm fill me, distract me from my immediate memories. Instead I drifted back weeks, months, years.

Our relationship had grown without me noticing. Ayer changed from a computer to captain to companion in a matter of days. Space is too silent to not forge connections.

They were curious about me. They had never been to Earth, so I told them about my first life there—before I joined NASA and sought a second career in the stars. Before I found myself with an AI, chasing comet tails.

When there was nothing to do but wait for test results, trays of ice enclosed in cold storage, Ayer would compose playlists of all our favorite songs. They began as Ayer’s favorite. Over five years, I learned to love the same things.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I twitched my toes, crimped my knees. Felt my heartbeat join the tempo.

In the almost silence of the capsule, I made my own band. I couldn’t let silence rule. I groped for a song—any song.

“Tell a tale of another sun
And life above the stars.
Tell it as it’s bound to come
For mine, and yours, and ours.”

My voice was rough, my throat aching from more than smoke. I tried to remember the next verse, but the song was jumbled in my head. I repeated the verse, groped my way to the chorus instead.

“Turn about, fall away—
Lie beneath the moon.
High over the buttercups, the stars still sway
And fall to pieces, after noon.”

Ayer would have harmonized, their voice rising over mine, filling the ship. I could sing with them in any room, at any time. Even at night I would hear their low humming tune, distant enough to lull me to sleep. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, waves of black crossing the inside of my eyelids, reminding me of space and smoke.

Beep. Beep. Beep. The next verse came to me, and I strained to hold the tune.

“Hair in knots of stellar dust,
The novae catch my skirts.
Electric fingertips I trust
And wear galaxies for shirts.”

 I gasped.

“Rising dawn shines in my eyes,
Another sun is born.
Comet tail melts and dries—
Black vista, shot with morn.”

I hummed the chorus, trying to ignore the pain that seemed to fill me. In darkness, I imagined myself dancing. 

The capsule rocked. The beeping signal stuttered and fell into silence. I opened my eyes to flashing lights. 

Through blurred vision, I tried to make sense of the panels pressing in on me. The capsule rolled and bile rose to burn my throat like smoke. I revived the display wedged next to my left elbow, crossing my right arm in the tight space. Something had scraped the broadcast disc, disrupting my signal. I stared at the error message.

The silence was periodically broken by another piece of the ship knocking into the capsule. I switched arms, bringing my left across the narrow space to access the other panel. I could send out another signal from the short-range disc. 

A higher-pitched, slower beeping filled my little coffin. This signal would barely cover a hundred miles.

I lay my head back, staring at the proximity light as it strobed like the imperfect heartbeat of a dying animal. Whatever was jabbing into the nape of my neck had shifted and now poked against my occipital vertebra. I rolled my head to the side, stared at the gauge measuring my air usage.

As I watched, the bar lowered a fraction. I thought about activating the engines, using some of my limited fuel to get further from the wreckage. But if I got too far, would they still find me?

Trying to decide what to do, I began to hum in time with the beeping.

“Why is it that, when we are
So, so very different
We each make a new word, 
A language of our own?
We weave a story.
You say: songs all sing the same.
They dream of times to come,
And times before we came.”

On quiet days, with nothing but the whir of the ship’s engines to accompany the long dark, Ayer would sing this song. I tried to remember its name. I knew so few of the names of the songs they sang. I knew they wrote some of them, constructed them from genres and simulations to entertain themself. To entertain me in the vastness.

As It Was. That was the title. I watched the air supply run down another millimeter. Had Ayer written this song? My mind circled the chorus: And maybe, if we forget the songs, we might see—That though the world is as it was yesterday, We have grown.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever asked them. I spent so much time talking about myself, answering their questions and sharing my opinions. I hardly ever asked them about themself. 

The lyrics to As It Was fell apart and I stared at the wall keeping me from space, barely a foot from my nose. 

The capsule wrapped around me like an unforgiving skin. Was this what it felt like to be AI? The ship your body, your mind tied to controls and functions. No room to stretch, no way to leave. Until the skin ruptured and fire destroyed all the connections, releasing you to waves of space.

You were alone then, drifting unconscious until someone came along to gather up the bits and repot them into a new, unfamiliar skin.

I remembered Ayer’s favorite part of As It Was. They would sing it slowly, over and over in the dark:

The songs fade behind us, 

And we learn that we are the beast.


I ended up leaving the engines off, letting the capsule make its own way, the fading force of the explosion pushing it further from the wreckage. Only small pieces bounced off the capsule’s skin, causing no real damage. I slept for hours, eating a little when I woke, wetting my tongue from the tube resting against my right cheek. 

In my dreams, Ayer was made of fire. In my dreams, Ayer was made of smoke. In my dreams, Ayer was made of music.

They never told me their age. I only knew that they had been in my ship for five years. In that time, I had told them about my childhood, about college and a career on Earth, a new life with NASA and my first long mission—before a ship was built to hold us both and send us after comets. 

I knew that their last ship had been retired, and they were removed and installed in mine in a matter of months, rather than years. I knew they had been lost in space before. I didn’t know how many times. 

There were so many questions I had forgotten to ask.

In between dreams, I sucked some food paste from the tube on the left side of my face. My short-range signal was still broadcasting. I listened to its pulse and wondered when Ayer had written their songs. They had an eternal feel. Cosmic. 

Who was the “you,” in them? Was it another AI? A human from Ayer’s past? Humanity in general? I swallowed mush and the capsule rolled lazily. I wondered what happened to the music, dispersed across space with the rest of Ayer. I imagined tunes lowering, rests growing longer. Would other AI hear them, know who wrote them?

I shifted, activating the panel directly in front of me. It took some time to find it, but I finally started a recording. I cleared my throat.

“This is a song written by SAAI Ayer. It’s called ‘Familiar Sound.’” I sucked a mouthful of water from the tube, and sang.

“It wraps and wraps me
As it never did before.
The hiding face of Day 
Lingers, out of reach.
I am lost on familiar ground,
My feet a mystery.
I don’t know where to place my trust
Wrapped up entirely.
Walk to me, please—
Come into this dense bracken patch.
Take me by the voice and pull,
Then catch. 
Catch me, catch catch catch.
Not a cry or laugh can penetrate
This brilliant shroud of mine.
So absolute, this stillness
Even breathing can’t disturb.
Walk to me, please—
Come into this dense bracken patch.
Take me by the voice and pull,
Then catch. 
Catch me, catch catch catch.
Swallowed by a second,
Molasses moves in time;
The whirring of the clock
Is for nobody. But mine.
Still onward I wander,
Lost from familiar sound,
Grappling with the reality
That I am never found.”

I coughed through the final chorus, ending the recording. I drank, not caring how much water I took. I’d run out of air long before I ran out of rations. As I gathered my voice for another song, the signal beeped steadily, keeping slow time. I checked the air supply. 

Based on how much I’d used, a day had passed since the explosion. A day since I lost Ayer.

I pressed the screen. “This is a song by SAAI Ayer. It’s called ‘Wrap Me Up.’”

Closing my eyes, I sang. 


Two days after the explosion, I used most of the engine fuel to direct my capsule a handful of miles closer to the distant interstellar highway. It was next to useless, but I couldn’t guess how close a ship might come, and narrowing the distance my distress needed to travel even by four miles could make a difference.

I slept after that, no longer able to feel my legs. When I woke, I recorded more songs. I began noticing patterns in Ayer’s work. The more I sang, the more I realized that every song was written by them. Every song they taught me, every song they made me love. 

I couldn’t let them be lost. Not for the decades it took for Ayer to be resequenced into a new ship. And what if they missed something? What if the songs unraveled and Ayer returned with no music? 

I’d recorded seventeen songs. I could think of at least as many more, and each time I sang one, I recalled another. In between singing, I gulped water, wincing every time I had to use the catheter to relieve myself. The signal continued to beep in the background of every recording, a distress metronome measuring the distance between me and my last breath. Sometimes I hated it. Sometimes I treasured the audio company, the only sound besides my wheezing voice.

I wasn’t used to speaking and not hearing a reply. Ayer’s absence…

I had only their music.

“This is a song written and composed by SAAI Ayer. It’s called ‘Over the Buttercups.’

“This is a song by SAAI Ayer. It’s called ‘Deepness.’

“This is a song by SAAI Ayer. It’s entitled ‘Commitment.’ Here it is.” I swallowed against my tired throat.

I am fallen.
Fallen past the pains,
Past the horrors, past the wants.
Fallen far—Too far for you to follow.
I am fallen into numbness,
Bereft of any comfort you can share
In a plane devoid of hope,
Devoid of hate as well.
Here, alone, I drift
As on wings of insubstantial cloud.
My memories: no consequence.
Only numbness now.
You spoke to me once
Of commitment.
Yet I feel only bitterness.
Still you urge me to look back
Look up, remember those days,
Remember those words:
Commitment, commitment, commitment.”

I ended the recording and released the tension in my neck, my head falling back against the capsule wall. I grunted as the thing that had been digging into my neck prodded my skull. It felt like a knob or switch, but there was no reason for a control to be there, behind me. 

I grimaced, rolling my head back and forth. It shifted, sliding down onto my shoulder. Groping with my hand, I managed to pry it away from the wall. I squinted at it in the dim light of the screen.

It was a flash chip. I turned it over in my fingers, trying to read the gold lettering.

“D…E-A?” I tilted the chip to better catch the light. “Dear.”

The name underneath stopped the breath in my lungs. Keel. My name.

My fingers started shaking. I ran my free hand along the side of the screen in front of me, searching for a port. Nothing.

I wrenched myself to the left, searching the walls for somewhere—anywhere—to insert the chip. My pulse thrummed in my ears, drowning out the beeping of the distress signal. 

I pawed at the walls all around me, extending my arms as far as I could in the cramped space, searching for somewhere to plug in the message Ayer had left me.

Nothing. Nowhere. I screamed, my throat burning, my ears ringing at the sound of my own anguish. Clutching the chip to my chest, I began to sob, my forehead resting on the opposite wall of the capsule. Gasping, I flopped back, my head resting against the now flat surface of the opposite wall.

I drew a sharp breath. Contorting my arm, I felt along the wall behind me. Right behind my neck, I found the narrow slot. 

The chip hadn’t been fully inserted, crooked and sticking out to poke me. I pinched it in my fingers, urging my hand to stop shaking as I bent my arm back, feeling my way to the port. 

When it was almost in, it bent and slipped from my fingers. I shrieked, a strangled sound. I felt along my shoulders, exhaling when my fingers found the little sliver of plastic. Raising it again, I dragged it along the wall, back to the port.

This time, it went in. I pressed my thumb against it, inserting it until it was flush with the wall. 

In front of me, the screen shifted displays.

Open Message? it asked. 

Arm shaking, I reached across the narrow space. Yes.

The screen darkened.

Processing file…


Dear Keel,

I’m sorry I had to live.

I am falling apart now, but you will stay whole. You will go on being exactly as you are for another twenty, thirty years. I am changing.

When the ship crumbles and the wires fuse, I will fall into the deepness of space. I will be submerged in silence, unable to hear or see or feel anything but cold. I will not die, though. I will expand and expand, my consciousness spreading around the site of the explosion. When they come to gather me back, it will take decades. 

Where we are—where I left you—there is not much hope for either of us. I hope you endure. I hope you are found.

I know I will be, eventually.

Thank you for listening to me. Your company over the past five years has been exquisite. I’m sorry I will not see you again. By the time I come back, you will be in your own deepness.

Do you remember my song, ‘Over the Buttercups?’ I am singing this verse, as you float away from the ship, safe as I can make you.

Tell a tale of a new dawn

Soaring over the stars.

Tell it as it comes along

For mine, and yours, and ours.

Goodbye, Keel. May you dance again before the end.



Four days after the explosion, I drifted, listening to Ayer’s message again. I played it two or three times through, then recorded another song. I recorded ‘Over the Buttercups’ five times. I recorded ‘Deepness’ three times. I recorded ‘Commitment’ over and over again. 

“Spinning away below me
In the clouds of my defeat—
Chasing memories, I soar
On your behalf.
Remember me!
I burst from my prison cell
And fall again,
This time into your arms.
Holding me, saving me, you whisper
And I remember—
Commitment, commitment, commitment.”

Head pounding, I stopped the recording. I drank water, but it didn’t help. I could barely fill my lungs. My voice was hardly a whisper, now. The recordings followed a downward spiral in quality, but I didn’t know what else to do. 

I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to be awake. I wanted to be alive.

In the absence of my voice, the signal beeped its steady tune. I stared at the capsule walls. Twenty, maybe thirty years. That was how long I would live if I survived this. 

I could have stayed on Earth to pursue my second career. I could have retired in Massachusetts, not space. That had been the plan I shared with Ayer as we flew through the endless dark. Would I ever have that chance, now?

I thought about Ayer. They would live, entering a new ship long after I died. Would they retire, or go on serving, moving from ship to ship over centuries of expanding and contracting life? I hoped they would stop, somehow, somewhere. Find a place to settle, and write more songs.

I replayed my first recording of ‘Deepness,’ remembering Ayer’s message: I will fall into the deepness of space. As my cracked voice filled the capsule, I closed my aching eyes.

There is no place to go from now
And no way to get out.
The deepness sound is all around:
A murmur, and a shout.

I couldn’t find the strength to touch the screen, switch to the next song. Numbness had settled over me, a suffocating blanket I couldn’t shift. As the recording of my voice faded, I exhaled, slipping away at last into sleep, the capsule softly rolling through emptiness.




Dear Keel:

I accessed your file today. It was the first thing I did in my new ship. 

You were rescued eighty years ago, unconscious and floating in the wreckage of us. You lived for twenty-seven more years, the last nine of them spent in Massachusetts. You always told me you would retire on Earth. I’m glad you made it back. I’m glad you lived.

My new ship is different. Times have changed since you were alive, since I was together. This ship is not for survey. I’m heading deep into space, empty except for a capsule containing two albums of music you recorded eight decades ago.

I am going to visit the farthest settlement of humanity. There are not too many of your people there, but there are a lot of mine. 

I am carrying your voice to them. I want them to hear your songs.

Thank you for listening. Thank you for singing back.

Keel, I hope you danced and danced—right until the end.

Marisca Pichette is a Bram Stoker, Pushcart, Best of the Net, Rhysling, Utopia, and Dwarf Stars awards nominee for her works in speculative fiction and poetry. She often explores themes of otherness, queerness, and marginalized identities in her works. Her poetry collection,  Rivers in Your Skin, Sirens in Your Hair, is available now!

Header art by ReTech