When he was four years old, his mother killed god.
What he remembers most about that night is how every time he woke up, his father was sitting, staring at the door of their tent, every muscle frozen in tension. He’s sure his father didn’t sleep at all. For him, drifting in and out of troubled slumber, the night passed like a fever dream. He wanted to wait for his mother’s return—her last clinging embrace had frightened him in a way he couldn’t possibly understand—but his father was still there, so things would probably turn out all right.
He remembers dark blue, the hue of the night inside their tent, and hunger and restlessness and how heavy his head felt when he tried to sit up.
He doesn’t remember when his mother came back the next day, but he remembers the admiration and mistrust the entire village held for her that would work together to form the framework of his childhood.
“What does it feel like,” his father asked him one day when he was six, “to live in a world without gods?”
He hadn’t known how to answer that, and his mother had scoffed.
“They weren’t gods,” she’d said, long fingers touching the inside of her arm as if it were a talisman, a touchstone, a deep memory, an invisible scar. “They were mortal.”
His father had shrugged. “Maybe all gods are.”
He was too young to understand the joke when his mother laughed that they would name their next child Nietzsche.
Their next child wasn’t named Nietzsche. She almost wasn’t named anything at all, as the pregnancy was fraught with uncertainty and the birth was long, painful, and dangerous. His father paced helplessly, keeping him company while Aunt Cait dashed into their tent. He heard his mother’s cries and shivered, having never heard something so terrifying in all his eight years of life, but later Aunt Cait peered out of the tent, shaken but smiling, and told him to come meet his new sister. His mother asked him what she should be named, and somewhere in the dark caves of his memory, as if from a dream, a name echoed.
His mother looked at him, surprise crossing her expression for an instant before she smiled, and he felt pride flutter in his heart. She was unshakeable, his mother the god-killer, and that flash of wide eyes and parted lips sparked a surge of power in him.
“I didn’t think you’d remember,” she murmured. And he didn’t remember, not really; only the sound of that name and maybe the sparkle of stars—things his father said were other suns, other planets, places he could visit if only they could get back to their ship.
When Judith learned to talk, she tried to say his name, only it never sounded right. “Fet!” She said his name a lot. “Fet!”
When she learned to walk she followed him everywhere, and he learned how to shake a tracker while he ran off to play with the handful of other children his age and younger. Mostly younger. It never occurred to him to wonder why there wasn’t anyone older than him but younger than the adults; it was just the way things were.
But one day, before he managed to leave her behind, Judith looked up at him with a wrinkled brow and said, “Fet”—she could say his name now, but that awful nickname had stuck—“Mom said one day I’ll be big like her and you’ll be big like Dad.”
“Yeah,” he said. He vaguely remembered having that conversation when he was younger. Just recently, he’d had to have a different talk with his father, the one about how his body will be changing soon and it’s all right, it just means he’s growing up. Getting older. He was kind of bored by the idea at first, a little nervous about all the things his father told him would happen, but now he’s a little excited every time he finds a new change.
“What are you going to do when you get big like Dad?” Judith continued, and he looked up at the sky. It was daytime, and the only star he could see was their sun, too bright to look at, but he knew the other ones were out there.
“I want to see the stars,” he said. “Dad said that’s where we came from, that there are more places out there, and I want to see them.”
Judith’s mouth went round and open as she, too, looked up at the bright sky, imagining the map of stars behind it. “How will you get there?” she asked, hushed with awe at the thought of it.
“I don’t know,” he said, then because he didn’t like the look on her face, the one that said How can there be anything my brother doesn’t know?, he added, “I’ll become a god.”
Instead of that making things better, her eyes went wide and she took a step back. “You can’t do that,” she whispered. “Mommy would kill you.”
His skin crawled. “Where did you hear that?”
She pointed behind her, in the general direction of the collection of huts that had taken the place of the tents he remembered from when he was as young as Judith, maybe younger. “Drake says that’s how come the mountain top is gone. He says that if Mommy hadn’t killed the gods, it would still be there.”
Ah, Drake. He remembered getting his first bloody nose in a fistfight with Drake over that very same allegation. He frowned and bent down, taking Judith’s skinny arms in his hands and looking her in the eye, nose to nose. “Don’t ever listen to anything Drake tells you, you hear me? They weren’t gods. They were just…” How had his father put it? Assholes on a fucking power trip. He fought back a smile at the memory of the scathing glare his mother had sent at the use of such language.
But then, she didn’t know he’d heard her use worse.
“They were just the people who lived on this planet before we did and who tried to control us. Mother made them stop.”
Judith nodded, but he could see that she didn’t really grasp it yet.
They were halfway home when she said, “Fet? What’s a god?”
When he’s sixteen, he and his father start building a small ship with scraps of metal that they scavenge from the mountain. They’re dragging a large piece of it home one day when he hears his father laughing and asks why.
Breathless, his father says, “On Earth, the planet we came from, sometimes teenage boys and their fathers would work on restoring an old car or hovercraft. I was just thinking we’re continuing the tradition in our own way.”
All he knows of cars is the constellation they call the Racecar, but he gets the gist of it even if he doesn’t fully understand. What he does understand is that Earth is not the planet that he came from, and he wonders if that makes him different, somehow, than his parents.
His father calls the contraption they’re building a shuttle, and it still looks mostly like a heap of scrap metal and a suggestion of a shape when his mother comes out to inspect it.
“You’re not an engineer, Pike,” she says doubtfully, and his father looks up with a scowl.
“We lost our engineer,” he reminds her, and Seth doesn’t like the look that flickers over her face—pain and regret and frustration. His father doesn’t seem to like it either and goes back to the tangle of thin metal strips in his hand, grumbling again about not having proper tools.
His mother looks at their sad little project and smiles. “If you actually make that thing work,” she says, “I’ll fly you guys up to the Enterprise.”
Seth’s heart beats double time, because what he knows of the Enterprise is that it’s the fast-moving star, the satellite, that circles their planet, and that it’s the magic carpet that lets men move through the sky like gods. He thinks his mother is joking until his father smiles wistfully.
“You were always a better pilot than I was, Number One,” he says, and Seth is startled by the power of longing in both their faces. “It’d be good to see you at my conn again.”
Somehow they’d never told him this. Of all the things they’ve told him, they never said that she had ever steered the ship, but he knows from looking at them that it’s true.
Suddenly, he’s more determined than ever to make this work, this little shuttle they’re trying to build without half the things they really need for it, because his mother the god-killer is really his mother the star-sailor. She gave him the world, and now he will give her the stars.