“The Wandering City,” by Usman T. Malik

The Wandering City

by Usman T. Malik

Art by Nina Miller

On a cool April morning, moments after the muezzin walks, sleep-drunk, to Mughalpura Mosque and before the discounted holometer at Lahore’s Abdus Salam Quantum Center starts beeping, the City flickers at the edge of a Florida wetland, and wanders into Lahore.

***

Allahrakha is the first to see it. He has just crossed Shalamar Bagh via GT Road on a donkey cart laden with cattle feed when the City appears. One moment there is the hustle of the highway: the milkmen, laborers, city sweeps, and truck drivers wheeling and trilling their way through dawn-emptied streets. The next, the world on Allahrakha’s right has vanished. Gone are part of the highway, narrow houses, bakeries, barbecue stalls, Mughal gardens, ill-funded primary schools, and grocery shops.

In their place stands the City.

Allahrakha gapes at the gleaming black stone walls, tall like a mountain ridge. As the sun brightens, the walls brighten, until it seems they are burning. It takes Allahrakha a moment before he realizes what he’s looking at.

“God protect me, it’s true!” he says, his voice filled with awe. “The wiles of Satan have found us. It’s our turn.”

Before temptation overtakes him, Allahrakha cracks his whip and trundles atop his donkey cart away to a mundane, safer world.

***

News of the arrival spreads like a plague. Stall to stall, door to door, alley by alley echoes the whisper: The Enchanted City is here! Yes, that City in our city!

Wide-eyed Lahoris gather outside the City’s rectangular walls as they might at sites of massacre or accidents. Some are friends and family of those on whom the City landed, and these bereaved rend their clothes and wail. Their loved ones are gone and not a trace of them will be found. The eminent cleric, nicknamed Maulana P.J., will be on TV soon to announce a mass funeral in absentia as per the Al-Azhar Consensus; but for now the remaining Lahoris gawk at the City, nudging each other, daring someone to climb the walls.

A foolhardy youth’s friends prod him into volunteering. Just a peek, they coax. The tallest truck-mounted telescopic crane they can find is brought and the boy, Subhan, is seated on the boom. The boom is extended to its limit. To no one’s surprise—they’ve all heard the stories—the extended arm’s height matches the top of the wall so precisely it looks like it was built to specification.

Everyone cheers.

Subhan steps onto the top of the City wall and gazes down.

An old man shouts up at him, “Tell us what you see.”

“I see…” Subhan begins, then stops, staring below. The crowd jostles for position and a teen with binoculars trains them on the young man’s face. “You,” Subhan calls, his face bright with wonder. “How beautiful you are. Oh, were I a speck of dust—”

With that, the young man leaps off the wall and into the City. Moments later there is a thud.

The crowd gasps, shocked by this confirmation. They’ve watched documentaries about the Enchanted City. Their children follow fanzines and web blogs and YouTube channels. They are in on all the juicy details.

They also know dozens more will volunteer to climb, including some with premeditated plans for a jump.

Just when a man with rat-like features offers to help draw lots for the next “lucky” climber, there is commotion—screeching tires, a blaring loudspeaker.

The Army has arrived.

***

The City is barricaded. Barbed wire fences put up. Choppers and drones fly over the walls to discourage trespassers and jumpers. New aerial photos go viral: lofty palaces, golden domes, splendid white terraces rising from unblemished houses, lovely gardens with waterways and fountains, trees bent with ripe fruit, and, close to the black walls, a seemingly placid lake, on the surface of which prance human figures.

Word is sent to the WECC and UNESCO that the ninth-century heritage site has shifted to Lahore. A team of locksmiths is challenged to find any door or hidden mechanism that might provide ground access to the City. Fulfilling expectations, they fail. Civil engineers are called; they arrive debating whether it is a city or a microcity—“It’s two kilometers in length; about a kilometer and a half in width!” exclaims one—and leave with the argument still raging. Heritage architects and artists are invited to examine the City’s walls. They find them pristine—not a scratch or gouge. The Enchanted City is meticulous at maintaining itself.

The Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff make speeches on TV, declaring a national day of mourning, expressing grief for those lost to the City’s relocation and hope that its presence will be good for the economy.

“I want to tell my nation today: ghabrana nahi hai,” declares the PM bombastically. “We must not fear it. We are a country brimming with hidden wonders, unimaginable beauty. The Enchanted City adds to that legacy. Imagine the untapped tourism potential! We will turn this calamity into opportunity.”

Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation’s marketing kicks into high gear. Vloggers and bloggers are handsomely paid. Tripadvisor, Condé Nast, and other travel sites are contacted to update their databases. Flight traffic to Pakistan increases a hundredfold as EC-chasers, rich louts, and bucket-listers swoop in to catch a glimpse of the Enchanted City. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and economists flock to Lahore to study the City and its impact on local populations, human and avian.

Food carts pop up alongside the barricade. Panipuri, papri chaat, mixed chana, coconut water, and rosewater sherbet sell out daily before noon. Photo-wallas, cigarette-wallas, toymakers, street magicians, cotton candy men grow rich in weeks. A juice-seller named Bholi makes so much money that he opens a branch on the other end of the City near Sheranwala Park.

As per protocol, an MOU is signed between the World Enchanted City Co-operative (WECC) and the Pakistani government, following which sanctioned visits into the City begin.

***

“Directly behind us,” says Dr. Abida Parveen, Director of the Lahore Museum, as she, a dozen high school students, and seven VIPs disembark from the military chopper that has landed on a greenbelt inside the City, “now fussing at us are the marionettes.”

She points at the gorgeous girls in vibrant robes standing by the stone walls. One thousand and one line the entirety of the City’s perimeter. When they see the spectators watching, the girls smile in unison, bat their eyelashes, and gesture to the group to come close. Next to them on blood-darkened ground, which shimmers to look like water, lies Subhan’s crushed skeleton, covered in tatters of fabric and skin. The cheels of Lahore and the ravens of the City have finished with him.

“We believe the sirens are the City’s sentinel mechanism. Few wall-climbers are able to resist their call.”

“And why do you suppose that is?” asks a dignitary.

“The Magic of the Mutable Marionettes.” The director smiles. “Or so the old chronicles go. WECC scientists believe the granite at the top of the walls is laced with pheromones and hallucinogens. This was hinted at in animal experiments a few decades ago—before UNESCO and WECC put a stop to such work. There is also an energy signature detected each time a climber locks in on a siren, accompanied by the subtlest shift in the siren’s physiognomy. We believe the siren changes features to maximize the potency of its call.”

Dr. Parveen leads the VIPs, including siblings of a four-star Army general and a cousin of the PM, and the kids through perfectly formed gardens, past carved marble gates, and into a market square. The market is crammed with fruit carts, sweetmeats, delicate cutlery, and colorful desserts, over which are shoppers bent and haggling and—motionless. Petrified in the act of commerce or argument.

The same vision greets them wherever the dignitaries go: city center with its twin brass towers, the palaces, verandas, houses, and tombs. Parks and gardens filled with animals and humans, sweethearts and sworn enemies, stilled and preserved. One high schooler begins to hyperventilate and is led back to the chopper while the rest hurry to finish their tour of the City before sundown.

“A city haunted by its own people. Forever alive in death,” pronounces the director. “We believe these to be descendants of Scythian nomadic tribes who converted to Islam and built a city in which to settle—but were trapped in a space-time rift. The trigger remains unknown, although inscriptions discovered by WECC seem to describe ‘a blight’ after the arrival of a mysterious enchantress.”

A student snorts. “Yeah, blame a woman every time.”

“Magic?” says another. “You also believe the Redditors who say the City’s ‘a place between the celestial and the terrestrial?’” She makes air quotes.

“The WECC physicists call it quasiparticle displacement.”

“Why no midnight tours?” inquires a dignitary. “What happens at sundown?”

“Why,” says the director. “The tomb opens.”

When the VIP raises her eyebrow, Dr. Parveen points to an ornate marble tomb as large as a soccer field. It has eight sandalwood doors studded with gemstones and golden nails, surrounded by dozens of sepulchers. “The tomb opens at dusk and one hundred automatons pour out. Anyone remaining in the City is torn to shreds.” She shivers with the thrill of it, and adds thoughtfully, “Their armor is impregnable.”

“How long does the City stay in one place?” asks a student.

“Three years on average, but anywhere from seven months to five years. Hey, I wouldn’t do that!” The director’s sharp voice startles the VIP scratching at a ruby on a sandalwood door.

The man backs away, sulking. “I was just taking a look.”

“Ma’am.” Someone raises a hand. “Has anyone ever tried to steal the gems?”

The director’s smile is cold. “Yes,” and they follow her gaze to the sepulchers arrayed around the Tomb of Automatons.

***

For months, Lahoris celebrate and revere the Enchanted City. Flower garlands and ceremonial threads are hung from barricade and barbed wire. During Basant season, teenagers gather on rooftops and fly kites and drones with knockoff GoPros and generic cameras across the City’s skyline, taking photos of the tombs, sepulchers, palaces, houses. Pakistani Insta, Twitter, and Snapchat fill up with bird’s-eye views and selfies and filtered renderings. Nighthawk photos show automatons busily surveilling the City even as Lahoris drink lassi or bhang and dance around the perimeter all night.

Things come to an unfortunate head when, on a sanctioned trip, the religious scholar Maulana P.J. glimpses the clockwork jinn that trundles out of the City’s mosque on a Friday, cups its hands over its mouth, and sounds the call to prayer: an eerie, ancient bellow that reaches miles past the walls of the haunted City. Maulana P.J. feels it in his heart, a bass thrum that triggers his atrial fibrillation.

Maulana is carried to the chopper, and instant fatwas are passed against the existence of the Enchanted City. Radio stations blare propaganda against the “City of Infidels,” screaming “CONSPIRACY: The jinn’s an Israeli weapon, the sirens a Hindu plot against our pious boys!” Defend-the-Sharia marchers fill the streets. While most of Lahore watches uneasily from the sidelines, pseudo-mullahs and goons storm the barricades, hooting and spitting at the Army men.

It is feared that riots may break out. An Army hawaldar might be bribed; a sympathetic captain convinced to step aside; the City’s walls scaled; the palaces and sepulchers raided; maybe a few petrified men killed or women carried off.

Nervously, the Chief and Prime Minister watch the anarchy churn. The Enchanted City protects itself. It can be unforgiving: that much is clear from eyewitness accounts dating back to the nineteenth century, when the first sightings were reported. Who knows what might happen if it is truly assailed.

Also, the MOU.

Pakistan will be a pariah, they whisper.

Then, one morning, the City is gone. Lahoris wake up and there is nothing but blankness the size of Old Lahore on GT Road. Army men, food vendors, and beggars stand in a circle around the vast emptiness, watching dust blow in veils and shopping bags swirl. They scratch their heads.

“We affronted the inhabitants of the City,” an old beggar offers. “It might never return.” His eyes mist over. “And if it does, I might be long dead.”

***

Slow for a day or two, then so fast it seems a blur, Lahore reclaims the blankness. Appropriately bribed government officials sell the residential plots to a property tycoon for pennies. Lahria Greens will be “The Community of Your Dreams,” the tycoon promises, even as the newspapers report a sudden increase in number of homeless and jobless jumpers in Lahore. The clever rat-faced man puts up a headstone where Subhan was killed, proclaiming him and the others lost to the City martyrs, and a shrine springs up around it. Pocket Quran sellers, shoe-shiners, shoe-keepers to watch your chappals when you take them off to pray, and rosary-makers build a circle of commerce around Subhan. Lahore Development Authority puts up half-hearted warnings against illegal construction, but shopkeepers and traders bring a stay of proceedings order, so the LDA is forced to watch food stalls wheel in and ugly illegal structures pop up as the court decides on a litigation date.

Months later, a ten-year-old girl who has moved into a Lahria Green home with her family picks up something gleaming in the soil of her backyard and examines it.

It is a brass marionette no bigger than her ring finger. When sunlight hits its eyes, one of them closes so it seems the figure is winking at her, pleased at a shared secret or a promise.

The girl smiles, and, slipping the marionette into her pocket, returns to her games.

 


Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani-American writer and doctor who spends his life between Orlando and Lahore. His fiction has won the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the StorySouth Million Writers Award, and twice for the Nebula. His stories have been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019, Tor.com, The Apex Book of World SF, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, and Black Static, among other venues. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Sycamore Hill writing workshops.

Watch Usman T. Malik and editor, architect and historian James Graham in a virtual conversation about “The Wandering City”

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events.

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