To the west of Little Aleppo was the harbor, and to the east were the Segovian Hills, all seven peaks. The summits were close together, and the passes steep and not particularly passable except for Christy Canyon, which had the only road transecting the range: two lanes of terror, switchbacks, drop-offs, blind corners. Other than that, there were just tight-squeeze residential streets barely fifteen feet across and access roads that washed out at the first hint of a drizzle.
Before it was America, and before it was Mexico, and even before it was Spain, Little Aleppo was inhabited by the Pulaski. They lived in the wide valley between the Segovian Hills and the harbor, where the neighborhood is today. They did not live in the hills. There were ‘squatch in the canyons, and wendigo howled at night from under cover of ridges, and also it was an enormous pain in the ass getting up and down them: chaparral and brush crowded the ground up to your waist, and there were rattlesnakes and poisonous lilacs. The Pulaski chose to live around the lake, which was on level ground that was not actively trying to harm them.
Several dozen kotchas were around a communal hearth, teepees made from wide strips of redwood bark, with a family in each one except the one all the way off to the north separated from the rest of the tribe by a half-mile: that was where the Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter lived. They used to live closer to everyone else, but they would stay up late having theological arguments at the top of their lungs, so they were exiled about 3000 feet. As exiles go, it wasn’t too bad.
Busybody Tyndale was not a Pulaski, obviously, and neither was Peter, whose name was not Peter. He was a Pawnee raised by the white folks who had orphaned him. America had chased him all the way west. The tribe let Peter live with them because he was a powerful and skilled hunter, and kept the village in meat. They let Busybody stay because Peter asked them nicely not to kill him.
The two of them had consecrated the first First Church of the Iterated Christ on a cool flat rock to the west of the village. Boulder, more rightly: it was half-buried under a sequoia where the clearing met the trees, and it stayed cool and welcoming on the hottest days. Peter and Busybody Tyndale would lay there in the afternoons chewing the leaves of the Peregrine tree and reflecting on refraction.
“Is Christ the water or the pebble thrown into the water?”
“Yes. And the ripples,” Peter answered.
“Is the Christ equal in all things?”
“You speak of gradations of sanctity.”
“Yes. All is infinitely holy. All is infinitely the Christ. But you must remember that the Christ is infinite; He contains joy and death, sorrow and hope. All things within the Christ, who is within all things.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale thought that over for a minute while rolling up a new leaf. He spit out the old one into his hand and threw it to the side.
“And does He control our actions?”
“No,” Peter said. “We manifest Him through our actions. Our deeds are the Christ.”
Busybody put the fresh leaf in his mouth.
“Tell me about it.”
The area that would one day be Little Aleppo was temperate; it never got much above 80 in the summer, or below 50 in the winter. In the mornings, the ocean waved the fog towards the hills, and it rained every 18 days. You might describe it as clockwork, but the Pulaski would not as they did not have clocks.
After the rains came, the hills bloomed: manzanita and ivy and broomweed and sparkthistle and ultraviolets and gooseberries and wild rye; green and spiked browns limning the hills and framing the rills, plus blues and pink heathers and yellow to attract the bees. And psilocybin cybelenis, which was a peculiar species of mushroom.
The caps were the color of a week-old banana, dingy yellow speckled with brown, and they were flipped up like a broken umbrella; the sticky ribs on the underside of the canopy were full of raindrops. The stalk was the peculiar part I was talking about, though: twisted like a pig’s tail, one loop only. The fungi bloomed overnight three days after it rained, and only on ‘squatch droppings, which were softball-sized clumps with nuts and seeds sticking out of them.
The problem being, of course, that ‘squatch droppings occur where there are ‘squatch. The Pulaski did not live in the hills.
Peter had seen worse. Killed worse, matter of fact, and he was not afraid of any damnable skunk-ape. He was also as armed as a man could be in the middle of the 19th century: two Colt pistols and a Winchester lever-action rifle, plus several knives. The first time he and Busybody had gone up the hill, he had handed the Preacher a small Smith & Wesson .22 caliber as they were walking away from the village.
“You know how to use this?”
“I don’t want a gun. Don’t give me a gun. I am a man of God.”
“So am I. God didn’t want us to have guns, why’d He give us the ability to make ’em?”
If the Preacher had more time, he could have come up with a good answer, but instead he just said this:
“Good point. Take the gun.”
Busybody examined the pistol; he closed one eye and looked in the revolving chamber.
“Is there only one bullet in there?”
“What good am I in a fight then?”
“You’re no good in a fight at all. If there’s a fight, I’ll be the one doing it. You hide behind me and don’t even think about touching that gun. It’s for if I lose the fight. You don’t want to be taken alive by a ‘squatch.”
“They play with their food.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was a small man even for the time, and the gun looked like a cannon in his hand.
“Can I have a holster?”
“I only have one.”
“Well, where am I supposed to put this thing?”
“It’s heavy! The pocket will rip right out!”
“Then stick it in your belt.”
“You hold it for me,” the Preacher said.
“You’re used to holding guns. You carry it.”
Peter reminded himself that, until they met, he and the Preacher had led very different lives.
“The whole point of having a gun is actually having it. On you. It’s why they call it ‘carrying’ a gun.”
Busybody had an idea.
“I have an idea,” he said, and walked back to the village.
The Pulaski picked dogbane in the spring; when you dried it and wove the stalks together, it made a cord strong enough to use as a bowstring. Busybody had tied both ends of a length to the trigger-guard of the pistol, and then shrugged the cord over his neck and shoulder to wear like a lady’s purse.
“Is the Christ not found in adaptation, Peter?”
“Gimme ten minutes before you talk to me, okay?”
Peter led them up the hill, but not by much: his size put him at a disadvantage. The scrub cluttered thickly around him; the smaller Busybody just turned sideways through the brush. They tried to stay on the lines of schist bursting through the ground, and in some steep spots were forced to skitter on all fours, search for handholds.
Busybody was again better-suited to the activity than the heavy, and heavily-laden, Peter; he scampered ahead.
“C’mon, Peter. Keep up.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh. Do you even see the puma?”
“The one 500 yards above and to the left of you.”
“Oh, that puma.”
Busybody stopped climbing and let Peter catch up.
“How did you survive until you met me?”
They clambered up a little bit more until they came to a walkable slope, and then a small valley–the size of a football field at most– with a wall of jagged granite sticking up through the grass. There were caves broken into the wall, and the caves were very dark inside.
On the opposite side of the valley, where the drop-off was, were thousands of psilocybin cybelenis.
“So much shit,” the Preacher said.
And so much shit: a long line of it stretching the length of the valley, fresh shit on top of fried shit, a vertical rainbow of brown going to white and sweet Jesus the smell.
Human beings have crude olfactory abilities, and this reflects in our language. Most of the words you might describe a smell with are borrowed from other senses: sweet, sharp. A scent is captivating; an aroma, enticing; an odor, off-putting. Fragrances waft, because that’s the law.
And then there is stink, and stink kicks you in the face like a camel with a toothache.
Peter pulled his bandana up from around his neck to over his nose.
“Do you have an extra bandana?”
Peter pulled the bandana back down.
“Did you bring one for me?”
“No,” Busybody said.
“How do you not have a bandana? It’s 18–. Everybody has a bandana.”
“You didn’t tell me about the smell.”
“I told you the mushrooms grew on shit!” Peter yelled.
The two of them looked at the caves that were very dark inside.
“I told you the mushrooms grew on shit,” Peter whispered.
“You didn’t emphasize it. You should have made it a real point in the presentation.”
“Breathe through your mouth.”
They were silent as they plucked the mushrooms from the shit; each had a satchel made from deerskin that was bulging by the time they were done. They wiped their hands off on their pants. One more look at the caves, and they walked off towards the north end of the small valley, where there was a goat path that led upwards and an hour later they were at the summit of the tallest of the Segovian Hills, which would come to be called Pulaski Peak after all the Pulaski people had been murdered.
The toppermost tip of the hill was broad and flat and grassy; yellow dandelions here and there, and outcroppings of granite just like the rock that the First Church of the Iterated Christ had been founded upon. Peter and Busybody spread the mushrooms, with their blown-out caps and curly stalks, out on one of the rocks to bake in the mid-morning sun. The two men thought that was a good idea, so they took off their shirts and baked in the mid-morning sun, as well.
The sky had never heard of clouds.
In the afternoon, Busybody built a fire while Peter diced the mushrooms into pieces and mixed them with corn porridge. They ate with their hands, and wiped their hands on their pants. The moon was full in the northwest, and past that was the Pacific Ocean; to the east was America.
It was quiet, and so the stars were not afraid to come out; families of them, clusters, a crab and a hunter and a bear and a kitchen utensil: it was amazing how much the stars looked like us. The Milky Way was a scar across the sky going north to south, and Peter and Busybody could see them echo off one another: there were lines connecting the stars and galaxies, highways of light a single photon wide that blinked in and out of existence with each flutter of your eyelid.
They lay on the grass a few feet from their dying fire.
“Is the Christ unknowable?”
“I’m not sure,” Peter said.
“Is He indescribable?”
“I can’t say.”
The fire went POK! and TAK! and above them stars shot PHWEEEEEEeeeeee from west to east.
“Look, Preacher. What do you have? There are stars, and there is space. Only stars: no life. Only space: no life.
“He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.”
“My favorite book.”
“You’re a romantic.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“They die of broken hearts.”
Peter had rolled his jacket up beneath his head; so had Busybody. They lay on the ground in between a rock just like the one the First Church had been founded upon and the fire. Everything was above them, and they were far from home.
“All the same Christ,” the Preacher said. “The stars, the space, us. All made of the same thing. All holy.”
“Same material, different mixture.”
“All the Christ.”
“The puma, too?”
“The puma, too.”
They were quiet for a second, and the Preacher sat up quickly.
“Oh, is the puma back?”
“He never went away. Over there.”
Peter pointed at the puma.
“I see him.”
“Oh, good. Pay attention. It’s dangerous out here.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale had seen all of America, and been to Montreal one time. Jesus came to him as a child in W——g, Ohio, when he was five or six; he had fever, and what passed for a doctor at the time told his parents not to expect much. The doctor told them to pray, so they did. Busybody got better.
What more proof do you need?
He had seen the Lord at work, you understand–actual evidence of intercession in his existence–and had to spread the Gospel. To not do so, he thought, would be a slap in Jesus’ face. And, yes: He would turn the other cheek, but you still shouldn’t slap Jesus. So he preached, and no one listened about the miracles he knew that Christ could perform. Busybody Tyndale was a man of whom the cliché “he was just trying to help” could be said sincerely. Naturally, people hated him for it.
He forgave them all, he forgave them all, he forgave them all as the sky wheeled and sparked above him. It was a lovely view of heaven.
Which is why they built Harper Observatory there. Roads were carved into the Segovian Hills in 1922, and in 1924 Pulaski Peak was bought by a rubber tycoon named Harper C. Harper. (1923 will forever be known by Little Aleppo as the year that the ‘squatch used the nearly-created roads to stroll into town and start eating people.) Previous to Harper’s ownership, no one had owned the top of the mountain, because owning the top of a mountain is just silly. You can’t own a mountain, the Pulaski whom the mountain was named after would argue. The white people who had murdered the Pulaski and then named said mountain after them would disagree, and since there were no more Pulaski to argue with them, they won.
A big, high plot of land with a fine view of the sky: Harper C. Harper thought it was a splendid place to stick a telescope. He and his rich friends would often make the drive up the pitted trail to gaze in wild wonder at the night above them. Sometimes, Harper thought of building something for everyone to enjoy, so the whole word could see the fantastic spectacle going on right over their heads. He just didn’t want to pay for it.
Luckily, the Depression broke out. Roosevelt (who Harper thought was a bolshevik and a traitor to his class) was throwing money at public works all over the country, and why not Little Aleppo? In 1933, Harper brought the neighborhood an observatory on the government’s dime and named it after himself; locals loved him for it. Plus, to cock his nose at Roosevelt (that crippled pervert sonofabitch), Harper built the observatory in the shape of the White House. But bigger. And a giant dome with vertical retracting plates, lippy metal mouth, that opened and closed.
The road was also made solid, and the last of the ‘squatch culled.
It was a sturdy building made of stone and steel, and could have lasted forever, but if a mountaintop can be owned, then a mountaintop can be bought; someone did, and the Harper Observatory, which had seen the Pleiades and the Septunarians and the Erisian Disappearance and that time Saturn turned orange, was scheduled to be torn down.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who had been murdered several months before, had been to the Harper Observatory as a kid. Third grade field trip: the 100-inch telescope at the heart of the main dome looked like an interstellar cannon, and he imagined shooting aliens out of the sky with it, defending Earth and saving his mother from the evil Martians. Most times, revisiting a place from childhood leads to disappointment; not here: the space cannon still loomed overhead zeroing in on all the evil in the galaxy.
Still, though: gotta keep the cop face on. Cop face. Officer Rodriguez knew what cops were supposed to do, even though he had only been a cop for about seven hours before getting shot; he had no idea what ghost cops were supposed to do, and he had been one for several months now. Romeo was having a rough year.
Then he got tackled by an astronomer.
“Who sent you!?”
“Get off me, lady!”
“The Town Fathers or the Cat People?”
“No one…get off me!”
Officer Rodriguez shoved the woman away from him, and sprang to his feet. The woman he had shoved also sprang, but to her feet. You can’t spring to someone else’s feet, even in Little Aleppo.
He drew his sidearm.
“Put that away, jackass.”
“Stand down, ma’am.”
“Stand down where? Downstairs?”
“Just…just…don’t. Just don’t.”
“Can you even shoot me with that thing? It’s a ghost gun.”
Officer Rodriguez didn’t honestly know.
“I don’t honestly know.”
“So put it away. That’s very aggressive, pointing ghost guns at people.”
He holstered his sidearm.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the director of the Observatory, Penny Arrabbiata.”
“That’s not a real name.”
“I attended your funeral; don’t lecture me on what’s real and what’s not.”
Penny Arrabbiata had been the director of the Harper Observatory for 40 years. She had discovered a star, Amphiates-1142, that pulsed like a bullfrog’s throat: every 18 months it would swell out to twice its size and then retract, all in a week’s time. She was the first to map out the Vertillian quadrant. She had wrangled funding from bureaucrats and donations from rich guys for three decades; it had turned her short hair grey. She was not afraid of cops, especially if they were 26-year-old ghost cops.
“Why are you here?”
“Do you know the guy at the bookstore?”
“Oh, that motherfucker!?”
Penny stalked out the door of the Observatory onto the lawn in front. She was tall with long legs, and she stalked forward when she walked like a stork. Officer Rodriguez followed. Since the land’s sale, maintenance had ceased; the grass was wild and overgrown and there were yellow dandelions here and there.
“Venable!” she yelled down at Little Aleppo. “Asshole!”
“I take that as a yes.”
“Don’t be smart.”
“That’s rarely my problem, ma’am.”
Penny liked that. She smiled at him.
“You’re looking right at me. You’ve been looking right at me.”
“Where should I be looking?”
“I don’t know. But people can’t look at me. It…they say it hurts.”
Penny walked two steps close to Officer Rodriguez on the scruffy lawn of Harper Observatory, staring in his eyes the whole time.
“What is your name, young man?”
“Romeo, would you like to see the universe?”
They went inside and she showed him stars with planets whirling ’round like nunchucks, and pulsars with a grudge against spacetime itself, and galaxies shaped like heartbreak. A pinprick, just a speck insignificant, and then press your eye to the piece and SHWOOM it was alive and pregnant with stories just like the neighborhood that Romeo had grown up in, and then his eyes were teary and he could not see the stars any longer.
“Do you understand?” Penny Arrabiata asked him.
“After all that, ghost cops aren’t a big deal.”
The two of them walked back outside. The stars were there, too, but smaller.
“How do you knock this down?” Romeo said.
“With a wrecking ball and a rich asshole,” Penny said.
Officer Rodriguez gave the area a 360-degreee sweep. The entire park around the Observatory was about an acre, and there was only one road in that wound up the north slope. Furthermore, the south, east, and west faces of the hill had impassable sections of sheer rock, or craggy drop-offs that made getting vehicles up them impossible. Additionally, the road–being carved into a mountain–had any number of choke points.
Before Romeo Rodriguez was a cop, he was a Marine. He could recognize a defensible position.
“It’s not an observatory. It’s a fortress.”
Penny Arrabbiata said nothing, but smiled; then she yelled down towards Little Aleppo,
“Venable! You’re still an asshole!”
There was work to be done, grad students to be marshalled and post-docs to be corralled, and there were maps to be made and contingencies to be dreamed up. The boobying of traps lay before them.
Harper Observatory was built with someone else’s money on someone else’s mountain, and so it belonged to Little Aleppo; it was stolen and soiled like everything else, and had been paid for over and over again. It had been promised, and Little Aleppians were good at holding the world to its promises. It couldn’t be taken, only won.
On top of Pulaski Peak, which was named to honor a tribe buried in a mass grave without their names, a ghost cop and an astronomer compare notes and plan for a fight. Stars whirl and wheel above them, and below is Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.