3780 words, short story
Our Fate, Told in Photons
We were seventy-seven when the Pleiades burned out. As the seventh daughters of a seventh daughter, it seemed almost poetic that this was what Fate had in store for us.
Yes, I said daughters. Plural. Casto came first, but she wasn’t breathing. I came second, and I was shrieking—gulping air like a parched man fresh from the desert. My tiny fist clutched her left leg, as if to insist: where she goes, I go. But she, the devilish little thing, she waited until all eyes were on her, until I was cold and alone in my cradle on the far side of the room, before she took her first breath.
If you believed in luck, you might have said we were fortunate. After all, it was only good timing that allowed us both to survive. Had we come along at any other era, in any other place, our family would have buried Casto and found some way to be content with me—stocky, hairy, flat-faced, flat-chested me. Instead, they got both of us to carry on their legacy, which meant they got Casto.
Every family has a legend, a story they share to liven up parties and impress the in-laws. The story, in the Pantazis family’s case, was a prophecy passed down from antiquity: one day, a seventh daughter would have a seventh daughter of her own, and that little girl would grow up to be the woman who watched the stars die twice. The original meaning of this prediction, if it had ever been clear, was lost to time. The prevailing theory, though, was that the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter would be immortal.
Imagine that: immortality. You can’t. It’s humanly impossible. We can imagine living a particularly long time—decades, centuries, maybe even an eon or two—but to be truly immortal, to wake and wake and wake without ending, past the time when all the stars have long since fallen? That’s inconceivable.
But the idea of immortality, the drive toward it, is part of the human experience. When someone tells you that your blood, your bone and grit and stardust, has the chance to live past the end of forever? You either latch onto that, or you run screaming from it.
The Pantazis family sunk their teeth into the teat of that prophecy and held on until it had been sucked down to a dry and dusty legend. They produced seventh daughters upon seventh daughters upon seventh daughters, but never enough in a row or in the right order. Something was always just a little off, but that’s the way it always goes with kismet.
Then we came along—Callisto and Pallas, Casto and Pall for short, the ones who would live forever. I wasn’t the child they were looking for. Casto was, but the family jury was still out on which of us—the one born first but dead, or the one born second but alive—was the actual prophesied child. They decided to cut their losses and raise us both as if we were the chosen ones.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Casto hadn’t come back to us. Could our family have been satisfied with me, or would they have let me slip away with my sister, to die as another failed attempt at grasping eternity?
I ask myself this, but I never want to know the answer.
The last light of the Pleiades reached Dardanus on July 7. It was two days after our seventy-seventh birthday, on the day of our birthday party. We’d gathered with a handful of friends and family to celebrate, and as we sat there, talking about anything other than Casto’s and my destiny, our personal assistants all went off with one loud, synchronous chorus of dings.
The room went silent. Our nephew, who was nearly as old as we were, put a hand to his face. His voice quavered as he flipped one hand in the air, fishtailing it, beckoning us to look and see the news for ourselves.
I turned over my arm and squinted at the holographic display hovering two inches above the flesh. The headline burned bright red. I stared so long that I could see the ghost of it on the far wall when I looked away.
PLEIADES OFFICIALLY DEAD. DARDANUS PM TO SPEAK.
Experts had spent years speculating when the Seven Sisters would snuff it. There were warnings and shoutings and whispers, most of which agreed that Alcyone would go supernova and take the entire cluster with her.
In the end, that wasn’t how it happened at all.
We hung on the PM’s every word. We would be able to see it soon—dusk, at the earliest, or midnight, at the latest. All we had to do was look toward the horizon and watch the stars we’d known all our lives blink out, one by one, as the final exhalation of their photons passed by us and fell, far away, into deeper space. There would be no commotion, no explosive surge of energy as they rallied before death—just a tidy and peaceful exit, as if the Seven Sisters had been so kind as to sweep the floors and turn out the light before leaving us behind.
This was a momentous occasion, the PM said, because it meant the universe was moving forward, just as humanity had always done. In such times as this, our greatest thinkers never failed to rise to the challenge. The end of the Pleiades, though unexplainable at this juncture, would mark the beginning of myriad new inventions and discoveries to enrich the lives of future generations, and for that we should be grateful. I suppose someone behind the curtain thought that line was clever, but it felt hollow. The night sky would have seven gaping holes in its face, forever. How could that be anything but tragic?
I looked at Casto. She looked at our nephew. He looked at his son and daughter, his brothers and sisters, all the family they had that made up for all the family we didn’t. They nodded.
We made s’mores and watched the show. A few neighbors who knew the story stopped by, but none of them stayed. We would have let them, if they’d wanted to, but no. They only wanted to say hello, ask how we were getting on. They knew about the prophecy, but they were polite about it. A friendly Hi, how are you? Funny astronomy we’re having—that was about as far as their prying went.
That night, as we sat under the darkened stars, Casto turned to me and smiled. We’d done it. We’d watched the stars die, just like we were supposed to. The weight of the prophecy felt a little lighter, but I could feel the burden of age and decrepitude taking its place, sinking into my bones, as slick and heavy as mercury.
I laid a steady hand atop her trembling fingers. Her smile faltered. We were thinking the same thing.
We were supposed to watch the stars die twice, if we were really the old Pantazis legend come to life. It had taken seventy-seven years for the Pleiades to go dark. The chances of another celestial event happening in the few revolutions we had left were slim. It was possible that we’d been raised to be people we were not, that the family would have to try again and start all over with a new generation of daughters. But who were we, and what could we say of our lives, if this had all been for nothing?
Our nephew messaged us the next morning with links to articles on stars that might go supernova soon. He didn’t account for the distance between those stars and Dardanus, and neither of us had the heart to tell him that it would be centuries before those celestial bodies went dark in our sky.
The Seven Sisters had been an anomaly, after all, a cosmic joke. Stars don’t just fade away for no good reason. The Pleiades had been a fluke, and so, it seemed, had we.
Time does terrible things. It takes everything from us and gives only hollow promises in return. You sacrifice it for children who will one day leave you to build their own, more important lives. You invest it to build friendships, only to watch yourselves drift apart. You pump hours of it into hobbies, the likes of which your joints will soon be too arthritic to partake in. And all the while, time rages on. It oxidizes you, burns your organs from the inside out. How would you feel about anything if the laws of the universe didn’t keep your blood at a constant simmer? Who would you be if you weren’t always dying inside?
Time is a parasite.
After the Pleiades died, Casto went through the five stages of grief every day. Handing her tissues and taking the butcher knife from her hand became routine. I hid all the blades and bought a large pack of handkerchiefs, then another, and another.
She didn’t care that life would go on without us. Her life, our life, was coming to an end. We were hurtling toward that big OFF switch at the end of the tunnel—last one out, turn off the lights.
Seventy-seven years, and what did we have to show for it? We’d lived all this time with a shared identity: we were the Pantazis family legend come to pass, the seventh daughters of a seventh daughter, destined to outlive the stars, not once, but twice. It had taken our entire life for the stars to go dark before us. We didn’t have another eight decades to wait for a second go-round.
Casto could have lived with it, accepted her fate and dealt with the hand she’d drawn, if only she’d had the opportunity to be the first seventh daughter in the equation. Sure, no one in our family had ever managed to get twenty-one daughters out of three successive, tight generations, but that didn’t mean it was impossible. Everything’s impossible until someone makes it possible. She, Callisto Pantazis, could have been the mother of the seventh daughter destined to become immortal. At least that would’ve been something, made her a part of the prophecy, rather than just another L on our family’s cosmic scorecard.
But that equation left no room for me.
In all our long years together, I never asked my sister to take my feelings into account. Instead, I spent the better part of a century tagging along on her adventures and playing the dutiful sidekick, as if I had never let go of her heel. I catered to her whims, and yet I was an afterthought in her wild imaginings. She let me be her stage dressing, her background noise, her spotlight operator.
She couldn’t help it, not really. That kind of selfishness comes second nature to people as beautiful as Casto. Everyone around you wants to please you and make you smile, as if good looks are catching and you’re contagious.
But when the Pleiades went out, the people who were once invested in us decided that our fate, the one thing they’d hung around to see, had all been a farce, maybe even a lie. They left, not all at once, but slowly. They drifted away from us like planets in an ever-expanding galaxy, and we were alone for the first time in our long lives, stranded in a dim, astral sea.
It was easier for me. Casto’s friends had only ever tolerated me because I was her twin. They thought I was playing the same game they were, trying to siphon looks off my sister through proximity alone. They pitied me for it, but I wasn’t stupid.
Nothing could make me any prettier. A short, fat, twisted thing, born into a family of tall and sturdy people, and fated to be forever photographed next to a living avatar of some goddess of the Amazons—I aspire to cuteness. When my sister wrinkled in all the right places, I sagged in all the wrong ones.
And when her mind began to drift, mine remained static.
Casto forgot my name first. She looked at me that morning, staring at my face through the coffee steam, and called me by our eldest sister’s name. Ramona? She said it like a question. She wasn’t sure who I was, whether I was Ramona or Leda or Pall or a complete stranger. I could have been our mother, for all she knew.
I corrected her, and we moved on. Or rather, she moved on. I couldn’t escape the cold weight in my chest—one hundred pounds of ice that formed the moment I realized I was the first person she’d forgotten. She’d taken me for granted our entire life. Now, I had disappeared from her memory.
The worst part was that I couldn’t even cry about it. It felt right, somehow, that she should be the one to forget me. If I forgot her, in her loneliness at the end of our age, then she really would have nothing. She could not survive without affection, and I was the last person willing and able to give it to her.
Her forgetfulness forced me to play around with new identities. I became whomever she thought I was at the time: Ramona, Leda, Mother. Pretending to be someone else was easier, kinder even, than fighting to make her remember me.
It was a game, a puzzle: try to suss out who I am today without asking her. She got scared if someone asked her. The few people who still visited gave stilted performances, but I had a knack for our game. I started to wonder if, in a world without our prophecy, I could have been an actress. Casto had a body and a face that were right for film, but I thought about all those beloved, “ugly” actresses and pictured myself among them. While my sister snored through her afternoon naps, I daydreamed about what might have been.
Sometimes I was a whole new person when she woke up.
Her doctors said there was nothing they could do. Her brain was slowly turning off the lights, one by one. The Pleiades were burning out all over again inside her mind. She wouldn’t feel hunger or thirst or pain. She was slowing down, and one day she would stop, like a clock someone forgot to wind.
There would be pain, of course, but not for her. Casto would cease to be, and I—the daughter no one had asked for, the child who came into this world clinging to her dead sister’s heel—would be left alone.
The doctors seemed to think that this was the natural way of things. They didn’t understand who we were. They wrote letters that allowed me to combine our assets, and they handed me brochures for funeral homes and grief counseling. For when the time comes, they said.
I threw away the brochures but used the letters. I opened a new bank account and dumped all we had into it. It wasn’t much, when all was said and done, but our total came to five figures, and that was more money than I’d ever seen in one place.
One day, as I combed through our assets, my sister peered over my shoulder and shook her head. Quiet little sobs hiccupped out of her throat. The numbers made no sense to her, she said. They were mean. They didn’t like her. Would I please make them go away? She sounded just like she did that day in Mother’s parlor, when she broke the ceramic duck centerpiece and blubbered out the lie that I was the one who had pulled it from the table.
I obliged her. I threw my arms around her heaving shoulders and tried to rock her like a baby. She braced herself, stiff and unyielding, until I stopped swaying. She relaxed into my embrace.
When she had no more tears to cry over the strange numbers in our bank account, she asked who I was.
I told her.
She said that was an odd name.
I never asked for her name. I didn’t want to know if she couldn’t remember.
Casto cried more often after that. The bank balance was only the beginning. She soon grew terrified of cats, squirrels, too-long grass, strong winds, light breezes, television commercials, and her own personal assistant. She was wary of bananas, oatmeal, confetti, forks, and rain.
She enjoyed blankets, but only so long as they didn’t have any static electricity in them.
She liked birds, but only if they were quiet and still. When they took flight, she screamed. We went to art classes at the senior center and painted birds in nests, birds that would always be still, no matter how long she stared at them. Casto wrapped her birds in blankets, painted their nests as if they were made of soft, fuzzy cloth. The blankets grew softer and fuzzier, until they stopped looking like anything at all.
My sister lost the words for the things that scared her. We made up hand signs so that she could ask for her comfort items, but we rarely used them.
She woke me up so many nights, wailing into the darkness above her bed until I rushed in, bringing the light with me. She would hug herself, or sometimes me, until she quietened. Most of the time, she couldn’t say what the nightmare had been about. The “mean people”—which could mean anyone from a heavy-handed phlebotomist to a particularly feisty chipmunk—and their awful tricks—taking away her blankets, usually, or making them staticky on purpose—terrorized her in her sleep.
When she could remember what had frightened her awake, it was always the same: the stars overhead had blinked into nonexistence, and they hadn’t come back like they were supposed to. She wanted to watch them go out again, but they were mean and would not play with her.
In the end, she forgot everything but our prophecy.
I booked the trip without thinking about Casto’s new, irrational fears.
The journey wiped out our savings, but that was all right. I put the house on the market, asked our nephew to facilitate the sale and transfer the money into our new account. It didn’t have to be much—just enough to start a new life somewhere else. I didn’t tell him I had the somewhere in mind. He sent me more brochures for nursing homes, and I sent him the keys to the house. His brochures went in the garbage with the rest.
I didn’t tell Casto’s doctors that we were going. I didn’t expect to see them again. We left two days after the refill date on her medications. I packed our bags quietly, loaded them up while she slept.
The morning of our departure, I told her we were going out. It was the same thing I said when we went window-shopping or browsed through garage sales, looking for paintings of birds that did not move or make noise. She went without a fuss.
Dardanus was a long way from Mars. We were already a year behind the Pleiades, at that point. The only option was the New Expressway: an innovative travel system that purported to shield passengers from the deadliest portions of interstellar radiation. Like most people, I didn’t understand how the technology worked. It was still in its infancy. Despite the transport’s state-of-the-art upgrades, people frequently died, especially the old and sick.
We were old. She was sick. I signed the waivers for both of us, because nothing else mattered, in the end.
They put you to sleep when you ride the New Expressway. It’s supposed to help with the time dilation, which apparently causes jet lag so severe you can hallucinate. Everyone’s different, they told me, but they have to be sure.
I splurged and booked us the double bed. It was technically a honeymoon suite, but no one asked questions. The room was a deep shade of coral red. I sighed with relief when I saw it; Casto had developed a new fear of the color green. The New Expressway staff waited to close the bed’s rounded canopy until after Casto fell asleep. I stayed awake until her hand went slack in mine and a snore escaped her lips. I watched as the attendants in their goldenrod uniforms eased the dome shut. My eyelids closed with it.
Waking up from the sedation comes easy, except for the cold. The sleep feels momentary and infinite. Two seconds or two eons ago, it was summer on Dardanus. Now it’s winter on Mars. It was the year of our seventy-eighth birthday. Now, we’re seventy-nine, four hundred years later.
The goldenrods who have spent the last four hundred days caring for us escort us through the concourse to our cab. I thank all the old gods that Casto doesn’t pay attention to the news anymore. Every screen, all around us, shows live feeds of the Pleiades from Mars’ biggest and best telescopes. They have more warning than we did. Their PM doesn’t have to make an announcement. Their whole world has been waiting centuries for this moment.
The cab drops us off at our new home. It’s hard to book a campsite four hundred years in advance, so I bought this remote little plot with what was left over after the tickets were booked. It’s not much, just a small scrap of red earth with two lawn chairs and a tiny mobile dwelling, all delivered this morning.
What the New Expressway lacks in safety, it makes up for in customer service.
I wrap Casto in her blankets and take my seat beside her. We have the full view overhead: Taurus and that little smoky patch of stars neither of us has seen since the night of our last birthday party.
I point to the cloud of Sisters.
“Casto, do you know what that is?”
She looks up, quickly, then shakes her head.
“Those are the Pleiades.”
Casto looks at me for a long moment and then stares back up.
“They look different,” she says.
“They were closer the last time.”
“They went out the last time.”
“Why are they back?” she asks.
“You know why.”
The word prophecy forms on her lips without a sound.
I take her hand in mine and squeeze. She squeezes back.
We lie back and watch as our fate, told in photons, rushes to meet us.